Barack Obama, Wonk-in-Chief, Pens a Policy Paper on Clean Energy for ‘Science Magazine’

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Cementing his legacy as one of the wonkiest leaders in American history, President Barack Obama penned an alternative energy policy paper for Science Magazine this week, calling on private and public sector leaders not to stand in defiance of efforts to combat climate change.

The Irreversible Momentum of Clean Energy” laid out a clear position that, yes, climate change is real, but so are the benefits of continued efforts to combat it, both environmentally and economically. Obama made clear that he sees a correlation between energy innovation and economic success. “CO2 emissions from the energy sector fell by 9.5 percent from 2008 to 2015, while the economy grew by more than 10 percent,” he wrote. Some have suggested that the switch to renewable energy would negatively effect both GDP and growth, but the last eight years have proved otherwise. “In this same period, the amount of energy consumed per dollar of real gross domestic product (GDP) fell by almost 11 percent,” wrote the president, “the amount of CO2 emitted per unit of energy consumed declined by 8 percent, and CO2 emitted per dollar of GDP declined by 18 percent.”

This argument comes days before the White House will be handed over to the Trump administration, which has been seen as friendly to fossil fuels and a safe space for climate-change deniers.

But Obama left that argument out of his paper, instead choosing to focus on the many benefits of encouraging clean energy. “This does not mean the next Administration needs to follow identical domestic policies to my Administration’s,” he said. “There are multiple paths and mechanisms by which this country can achieve — efficiently and economically — the targets we embraced in the Paris Agreement… Regardless of U.S. domestic policies, it would undermine our economic interests to walk away from the opportunity to hold countries representing two-thirds of global emissions — including China, India, Mexico, European Union members, and others — accountable.”

Obama’s encouragements, though, came with a careful warning about the dangers of inaction for the next president:

This should not be a partisan issue. It is good business and good economics to lead a technological revolution and define market trends. And it is smart planning to set long-term emission-reduction targets and give American companies, entrepreneurs, and investors certainty so they can invest and manufacture the emission-reducing technologies that we can use domestically and export to the rest of the world.

Obama continued by laying out why “hundreds of major companies — including energy-related companies from ExxonMobil and Shell, to DuPont and Rio Tinto, to Berkshire Hathaway Energy, Calpine, and Pacific Gas and Electric Company — have supported the Paris process, and leading investors have committed $1 billion in patient, private capital to support clean-energy breakthroughs that could make even greater climate ambition possible.”

Obama’s choice to publish a scientific policy paper days before the inauguration appears to be unprecedented. But that’s to be expected from Obama: He was, after all, the first sitting president in history to publish an academic article (with the equally exciting title, "United States Health Care Reform: Progress to Date and Next Steps").

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