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President Obama Doubles Down on Clean Energy

Insights + Opinion

President Obama doubled down on climate and clean energy Monday saying, “No challenge poses a greater threat to our future than climate change.” Speaking at the eighth Clean Energy Summit, in his first public appearance since vacation, President Obama launched an 11 day climate barnstorming campaign.

His blunt speech directly challenged climate sceptics as ignoring the new logic of the market, saying that now clean energy was cheaper, fossil interests still refused to embrace change. Obama asserted, “We believe we can do good while doing well at the same time.” He laid out a series of policy initiatives—the most important a long overdue message to federal banking regulators to get out of the way on programs that help homeowners bring down their energy bills by making their buildings less leaky.

President Obama begins speaking at 44:00.

The 11 days—yesterday in Las Vegas, next Thursday in New Orleans, the following week to the Arctic—were a prelude, the President promised, to a 100 day long marathon leading up to the Paris Climate COP. The overall campaign will continue through the National League of Cities Convention in Nashville in November, culminating at the UN Summit. In Obama’s mind, it is a campaign “between those who fear the future and those who are eager to see the future.”

The opening salvo was buttressed by the two key dynamics that the President expects to drive an ambitious if incomplete climate deal over the Paris finish line: city leadership and clean energy economic clout.

While the formal negotiations between UN member states drag and lag at a lowest common denominator pace, the real front line warriors, cities, are crowding into an international diplomatic space long closed to them. As former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg signaled in his Foreign Affairs manifesto this month, the world’s first Metropolitan Generation has been handled the climate challenge, and it is going to meet with an urban strategy: diverse, bottom up and profitable.

Yesterday, the White House challenged America’s cities to turbocharge the Compact of Mayors. “The Compact is an initiative supported by Mike Bloomberg, the UN and global city networks—C40, ICLEI, UCLG—coming together to create a measurable accountable reporting platform through which cities say to their nation-states, in effect, “You Mr. Prime Minister may be forced to hesitate and equivocate, but we will lead. And you can measure our results—so the world will know what can be done.”

Fifteen new American cities joined the compact yesterday, almost doubling the membership—Atlanta, Austin, Bridgeport, Camuy (PR), Chicago, Chula Vista, Grand Rapids, King County, New York, Oakland, San Francisco,  Santa Monica, Seattle, West Hollywood, West Palm Beach. And a 12 city Leadership Circle chaired by Salt Lake City made it clear that urban voices would be in Paris in force.

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It is clear that the administration understands that cities and the mayors who lead them need to have its back in the two key arenas: internationally where other nations wonder if Congress will let Obama deliver, and domestically, where Big Carbon’s hopes rest on a blocking minority of governors and attorneys general thwarting the national consensus that carbon pollution needs cleaning up. By acting independently and visibly, cities show the world that the U.S. is cleaning up its act.

Nevada was the perfect showcase for the second of the forces the President and his climate team are counting on to deliver success in Paris—the dynamism of clean energy. As Sen. Reid reminded the audience, eight years ago—in the first of these summits—former President Clinton challenged Nevada to produce more clean energy than it uses.

Today, the Silver State on a per capita basis is already capturing more electrons from the wind, sun and geothermal than any other state, and has announced the retirement of all its coal fired power. Now it is about to experience the first true clean energy boom, in the form of 6,500 manufacturing jobs and 9,000 construction jobs being added in Washoe and Storey Counties (Reno and Sparks) by Tesla Motors EV batteries Gigafactory. (This one project will employ 1/5 of the number still working to mine coal in the U.S.).

The media had largely missed this until Obama arrived Monday. But Hilary Clinton’s campaign had not—she signaled Nevada as her Western fire-wall state. Democrats took a huge bath in 2014 because the state’s construction-juiced economy had not recovered from the Recession. But Tesla plus clean power equals recovery, and makes Nevada a dismal prospect for a Republican Presidential candidate determined to trash clean power. (Neither Nevada’s Republican Governor nor its Republican Senator, Dean Heller, have ever joined the “clean power means socialism” caucus—but virtually every Republican Presidential candidate has).

Reid, who is retiring, paid tribute to the progress America’s electricity sector has made—but reminded us of how many miles we have yet to go, and how mired in the past much of the utility industry is. In inimitable Harry Reid fashion, he treated us to a long analogy between the clean energy revolution and the arrival of sabermetrics in baseball. Reid recounted that before Manager Billy Bean and the Oakland A’s of 2002, baseball teams just bought the highest batting averages, and assumed that would yield the most wins. That, Reid told us, is yesterday’s utility model: build enough big coal and nuclear power plants, and you’ll always have a (wasteful) surplus to meet your customers' needs. But, Reid said, customers wanted something less wasteful, something cheaper—better, not just bigger—and clean energy is providing it.

So Obama came to Reno yesterday to energize his two secret climate progress weapons—cities and profits. And both of them seem ready to accompany him, not only for the next 100 days on the road to Paris, but after than on the road through Paris.

(PS: When Harry Reid’s political career began, Nevada economy’s was still rooted in the mining past of his own home town, Searchlight. Las Vegas thrived—well, because the rest of the country valued a safety valve from legacy Puritanism to gamble. When Reid retires in January 2017 his state will stand out as one of the nation’s most successful innovators. Rarely has a Senator done so much for his state and the nation together).

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