Ideas to Action:

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… the threat from climate change is serious, it is urgent, and it is growing.  Our generation's response to this challenge will be judged by history, for if we fail to meet it – boldly, swiftly, and together – we risk consigning future generations to an irreversible catastrophe.

President Barack Obama

Address to the United Nations

Tuesday,  Sept. 22, 2009

Acting “boldly, swiftly and together’ means global collaboration to move renewable power to cost parity with fossil-fired power as quickly as possible, so global investment will shift to clean energy.  We can do this by taxing carbon emissions, making dirty power more expensive, or by subsidizing renewables, making clean power cheaper.  There is no third option. And Congress has defaulted on the first option by repeatedly failing to tax carbon. The makeup of the new Congress guarantees more of the same, and a global carbon tax remains just a dream.  I have joined others in urging US Green states to counter with local carbon-added taxes, but that will take precious time.

So it’s clear what we have to do now: Subsidize clean power, exploiting scale and learning economies to drive it to cost parity with fossil power as quickly as possible.  China must be the center of this effort, because its rapidly-growing carbon emissions already exceed US emissions.  In a recent technical paper, my colleague Kevin Ummel has assessed China’s potential in concentrating solar power (CSP):

Total CSP potential in China is at least 16 times greater than current coal power output; … A CSP expansion program could provide 20 percent of electricity … by midcentury. Under conservative assumptions, the program will require subsidies of $340 billion in present dollars.

Remarkably, the Chinese are actually pursuing this vision with a plan for huge, subsidized investments in solar energy.  And their wind power plan is equally ambitious.  These programs will sharply reduce the cost of clean power for everyone in the world.  Acting “boldly, swiftly and together” should mean US praise and support for this Chinese initiative.  And we should immediately join them in a global campaign to achieve cost parity for clean power by 2020.

But, tragically, the Obama administration has taken the opposite course.  Rather than confronting climate skeptics head-on, the administration has sold its carbon mitigation program as support for green jobs and international competitiveness in clean technology.  Not surprisingly, the president’s supporters in organized labor have taken him at his word.  On December 22nd, the administration responded by filing a case against China with the World Trade Organization that accuses Beijing of providing unfair subsidies to Chinese companies that are developing clean technology.

Think about it:  The Obama administration, having defined climate change as a global emergency, has responded to a massive Chinese drive toward cheap clean technology by demanding that they retreat!  Mr. President, by the logic of your own rhetoric this is insane, because we’re out of time.  Your own advisors must be telling you that climate change is hitting us now, and very hard.  This is not a jobs issue, this is a survival issue.

There’s only one reasonable response to this emergency, and that’s all hands on deck.  Anything that makes renewable energy cheaper, anywhere in the world, should be welcomed without reservation.  For trade in clean power technology that means no restrictions: no tariffs, no quotas, no sanctions, no limits of any kind, from now on.

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CGD blog posts reflect the views of the authors drawing on prior research and experience in their areas of expertise. CGD does not take institutional positions.