There are a lot of big issues facing our nation. Without a doubt, one of them is climate change.
You asked him questions. He answered.
Q: You've written about Obama's plan to double (presumably non-hydro) renewable energy production in the US within the next 3-4 years to 10% of our total energy production. Realistically, how much of our energy production do you see coming from renewable sources at the end of Obama's first term? Do you think his goal of doubling it is a realistic one? (question from dana1981)
A: I think that Obama will double renewable electricity generation in his first term, yes. The stimulus package (combined with the bailout bill) does more for renewables than any bill in decades.
Q: We know that ExxonMobil, Chevron, and others aren't going to just drop out of the oil business until it makes financial sense to do so. But with their tremendous financial reserves, do you see them getting significantly behind any renewables in the near future? How would you feel if they did? (question from Deej)
A: I think the US oil companies largely have blinders on when it comes to global warming and clean energy. So I don't expect they will make significant investments and I'm not certain they have any inherent strategic advantage in those industries. I would be quite surprised if they reversed their previous lack of investment.
Q: My question to you, because this is something I´ve been pondering myself for awhile, is related to the Pickens Plan. It´s getting a lot of press of course and is widely applauded amongst green advocates. Of course I understand and agree with its first tenant related to wind power, but the second on natural gas vehicles causes me reservation for several reasons (switching one fossil fuel for another, our nations already over-reliance on natural gas, coupling our transportation sector with our electricity & heating, lack of fueling station infrastructure, etc). Not to mention PHEVs & EVs are just around the corner. Interestingly enough, I have seen very little public opposition or even critical questions being asked. And even amongst energy or environmental minded folk I often stand alone when I voice my opinion. Clearly you´re not one to buy into the herd mentality and give frank answers, and since I have come to respect your opinion, I was wondering what´s your take on it? (question from Cash)
A: The Pickens plan for wind is a good idea but as you say natural gas vehicles leave much to be desired. Even Pickens has pretty much walked away from natural gas powered cars and is mostly focusing on natural gas powered long-haul trucks. But it remains a stupendously bad idea to burn natural gas in engine that might have an overall efficiency of 20%, when you can get close to 60% for generating electricity, and 80% or more if you cogenerate electricity and steam. We urgently need natural gas to replace coal plants, not to run vehicles. Pickens was a more interesting renewables advocate when Bush was in office, since Pickens is very conservative. It isn't Democrats that need persuading to make investments in renewable, it is Pickens’ political allies. But he isn't really trying very hard to push them, and progressives don't need pushing. So he fills a somewhat useful role in educating the public about the costs of oil imports and the need for renewable.
Q: How much do you think we need to reduce US and global greenhouse gas emissions in the next 5, 10, 20, and 40 years in order to keep the effects from global warming manageable? I've heard anywhere from a 50-90% reduction in global emissions by 2050. (question from dana1981)
A: I am in the camp that says we need to keep total warming as close to 2°C as possible, which means we must keep atmospheric CO2 concentrations to 450 ppm or lower. That means the United States must have greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions below 1990 levels by 2020 and at least 80% lower than that by 2050. The world needs to peak in GHGs by no later than 2020 and then sea a 50% cut from current levels by 2050. And that ain’t easy!
Q: It seems we only have a few years to get international agreements in place and to start acting on them. Here in the U.K. our government is talking but not walking, the latest being the approval of the Kingsnorth coal power station. Do you think your new President will be able to drag the rest of the world with him on the new path he has indicated, in the face of all this back tracking? (question from gerda)
A: I think that this is the greatest challenge in the history of the this country and the world. I do believe that if anybody can provide the necessary leadership it is Obama and his amazing green team. I agree with NASA’s James Hansen that stopping new dirty coal plants and then shutting down existing ones is our top priority. I do not tend to think of the UK as the problem. It is the United States under President George W. Bush that has not just been a laggard but has actually worked to undermine domestic and international action. That will change under Obama. That said, the United States and Europe will need to convince China to agree to cap their GHGs by 2020 or the possibility of concerted global action is impossible.
Q: Do you think that the new administration will move toward consistency in its policies toward biofuels? Biofuel companies pay a larger share of revenues in taxes than fossil fuel companies because the main expense for biofuels is labor. Labor income is taxed at a higher rate than company profits. Specifically, will the Obama administration redress the tax imbalance between biofuels and fossil fuels so that the market perceives least a level playing field and invests accordingly? (question from Whiteshell001)
A: I have my doubts. I am afraid that the policy of embracing biofuels from food crops -- in both the United States and Europe -- is one of the single biggest energy policy mistakes of the past decade. We should end policies that would require higher levels of consumption of food-based biofuels and focus entirely on cellulosic biofuels. I have not advocated for a gasoline tax because a price for carbon is more important overall and I expect peak oil to drive up oil prices as soon as the global recession ends.
Q: How much do you think we can reduce our energy consumption via improved efficiency, and what are the areas where we can improve efficiency the most? (question from dana1981)
A: I think efficiency is the single biggest component of the path to averting climate catastrophe. Even so, it would take an extra ordinary efficiency effort merely to keep energy consumption flat in the rich countries. The areas of most inefficiency in the US economy are vehicles, buildings, and power plants. For vehicles, hybrid drives, advanced fuel efficiency, improved engines, and ultimately electric motors are the keys to improvement. For Buildings, we need a systematic approach to make lights, appliances, HVAC and building envelope more efficient. For power plants, we need cogeneration -- the energy wasted by US power plants equals all the energy used by Japan for every purpose.
Q: Given the energy crisis and the changing climate, what is the best thing we as individuals can do? What roll should we play? (question from jessg)
A: Become as knowledgeable as possible on energy and climate issues – and then become politically active. Only government can drive the policy changes needed to save the planet. And we determine who govern us.