This week, I watched President Obama speak in his clear, resounding, inspiring voice about clean energy and climate change during the State of the Union address. In that moment, I admit to feeling passion stir deep within me and tingles of inspiration buzz beneath my skin. Such is the rare oratorical power that Obama holds. But when the tingles have faded and words have waned, what are we left with but rhetoric and television-deep resolve with little hope or direction for a clean energy revolution. That must change. Sincere looks and a deliberate delivery do not curb climate change.
All due respect to President Obama, but while his words are intoned with the same passion and will they have always been, his speeches have grown more and more centrist. Shrewdly, he has made it an applause-worthy thing to promote offshore drilling and "clean" coal. Slowly, he pulls his progressive supporters closer to the center – the status quo, if you will – on issues like climate change, issues that demand immediate and progressive action.
I found it funny when Obama said toward the end of his speech that, regardless of your belief or non-belief in global warming, it is wise to invest in clean energy, and that there is no reason for the United States to play second fiddle in the new global economy. He vehemently exclaimed, "I do NOT accept second place for the United States of America!" But he will, if it comes to that, because he has no choice.
What, in our two-party, three-branch system is Obama going to do about it? I admire his passion, but why lead people to believe that he will take care of it? For he is, excluding war powers, helpless in the face of a sluggish Congress that refuses to pass any meaningful legislation on any important issue. Especially on global warming, where bills come riddled with loopholes and, to use the parlance of our digital times, viruses that almost guarantee failure or ineffectiveness.
That may sound a little too semantically charged a complaint, but to me its effect is undeniable. I've been scanning reactions on the internet since the speech, and I repeatedly see that progressives are suddenly feeling "rejuvenated," "refreshed," "filled with hope again." What?
Follow the line of presidential speeches over the last year and they continually become less substantial and more abstract. More about "what" we should do and less about "how" we'll accomplish what we already know we need to do.
We need real change, not real speeches. And I wonder, where are the policies and regulations that will truly transform our oil-based economy into a clean energy economy? Where is the national feed-in tariff that helped propel Germany to prominence in the global solar industry? Where are the import tariffs that Reagan began dismantling in the 1980s, which until then, protected domestic manufacturing? Even China maintains import tariffs well above 10 percent on key domestic industries. The U.S. import tariff currently sits at about 2.5 percent.
Under a free-trade model, American solar manufacturing cannot compete with Chinese competitors without constant bolstering by the government (i.e. perpetual subsidization). Some simple but definitive policy change could help avoid that. Yet words like "simple" and "definitive" rarely define political speeches (the fact that they do for Obama more than any other president in recent history isn't saying much). Tax credits and incentives are in place, which is excellent, and I agree that more should come. I'm always happy to see a new bit of funding or legislation that promotes solar, geothermal, wind and other renewable resources. But the obvious solutions – the ones right under our nose – seem to rarely be given the time of day inside the halls of Congress.
Enough of these patchwork solutions that end up so convoluted that no senator or representative, whose job (or staffer's job) it is to understand them, can possibly explain them coherently. Legislation may be necessarily complex, but solutions, or at least steps in the right direction, need not be. It's hard for me to get behind a State of the Union address that never really addresses the actual state of the union.
And yet I agree with most of President Obama's vision for our energy future (with a few glaring exceptions), but we need substantial change. Change that cannot come through speeches and appeals to the side of the fight that won't fight for anything and won't compromise in any way.
What I see more than anything in our government and media is a move away from real change. A move in which resolve has melted into pliant hope. Where anger and defiance on one side breed renewed cynicism and frustration on the other. So we the people, in fear or acquiescence, drop our proverbial sticks and stones in favor of words that will never hurt us. Am I trying to incite violence? No. But I would like to incite some real change. President Obama proves again and again that words can be a powerful force. The real difference lies in whether those words incite complacency or real change, for there is no more powerful word than one put into action.
Photo Credits: Whitehouse & Planetware