“The path towards sustainable energy sources will be long and sometimes difficult,” President Obama said in his second Inaugural Address on January 21.  “But America cannot resist this transition; we must lead it.” What is the President thinking of when he uses the term “sustainable energy”? Does he think it’s compatible with his current “all of the above” energy policy, or will he acknowledge the contradiction and the need to re-frame his approach?

The relevant text from the Inaugural Address:

We, the people, still believe that our obligations as Americans are not just to ourselves, but to all posterity.  We will respond to the threat of climate change, knowing that the failure to do so would betray our children and future generations.  Some may still deny the overwhelming judgment of science, but none can avoid the devastating impact of raging fires, and crippling drought, and more powerful storms.

The path towards sustainable energy sources will be long and sometimes difficult.  But America cannot resist this transition; we must lead it.  We cannot cede to other nations the technology that will power new jobs and new industries – we must claim its promise.  That is how we will maintain our economic vitality and our national treasure – our forests and waterways; our croplands and snowcapped peaks.  That is how we will preserve our planet, commanded to our care by God.  That’s what will lend meaning to the creed our fathers once declared.

Back in 1989 — one year after global warming first became a high-profile policy issue in Washington — I co-authored with Chris Flavin at the Worldwatch Institute a report titled Sustainable Energy. So when a U.S. president finally says “sustainable energy” in an inaugural address the words jump out at me.

Our report connected human-caused climate change to the imperative for a sustainable energy transition. It focused on recent developments in the development of renewable energy and high-efficiency energy end-use technologies. It served as a kind of primer and update after eight years of the Reagan presidency, which was hardly known for its support of renewable energy.

We did not include energy production from fossil fuels or nuclear power in our discussion of ‘sustainable energy’ alternatives, though of course it was understood that a transition would have to take place over a period of time. Climate change called for new thinking about how to expedite the transition.

President Obama and his administration have been talking in terms of their ‘all of the above’ energy strategy. They have talked about what they are doing to promote increased production of oil (including offshore drilling in the Arctic Ocean and deepwater drilling in the Gulf of Mexico). They talk about the importance of increasing production of natural gas using hydrofracking technology. They talk about supporting development of ‘clean coal’ and continue to allow mountaintop removal coal mining. They are seriously considering granting a permit for the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline from Canada. And so forth. During the 2012 election campaign, they touted their ‘all of the above’ approach without talking about climate change as a driver for a U.S. energy strategy.

The way the Administration has presented it, ‘all of the above’ is not compatible with a serious strategy to deal with the threat of global climatic disruption. It’s not compatible because it has not been framed in terms of expediting a phase-out of the fossil-fueled energy system, which is what a serious climate strategy will entail. Now that Obama is making a commitment to “respond to the threat of climate change” and acknowledging that this requires a commitment to a “sustainable energy” system, he should be expected to re-frame his Administration’s energy policy to focus on how it is driven by these commitments.

He can’t have it both ways.

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Footnote: As far as I have been able to determine, our 1989 Sustainable Energy report was the first (at least the first aimed at a general readership) that used the term “sustainable energy” in its title. (If you are aware of something earlier, please let me know.) We distributed thousands of copies for free when it was published by the environmental and energy education group Renew America. The report has long been out of print — though I notice today that a third-party bookseller is offering a used copy (“good” condition) on Amazon for a mere $374.98!

Earlier posts:

“We will respond to the threat of climate change” – Looking ahead from the Inaugural Address

White House energy policy talk has ‘all of the above’ except climate change

Still drunk on oil: Obama’s speech in Cushing