The Planet Heats Up as Government Support for Clean Energy Goes Down: What's Wrong with this Picture?

NY Times
July 21, 2012

There’s Still Hope for the Planet
David Leonhardt

The United States is now enduring its warmest year on record, and the 13 warmest years for the entire planet have all occurred since 1998, according to data that stretches back to 1880. Atlanta has recorded its hottest day in history this year. Dallas endured 40 straight days above 100 degrees last July and August — and this year so far has been even hotter than last year. As David Leonhardt acknowledges in this column, “[n]o one day’s weather can be tied to global warming, of course, but more than a decade’s worth of changing weather surely can be.” Although the country is moving further away from doing something about climate change through legislation at the federal level, the nation’s energy supply is nonetheless becoming de-carbonized. Low natural gas prices, as a result of the new supplies that can cost-effectively be extracted through hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling, have stimulated rapid growth in gas-fired electricity generation, to the point where natural gas-fired generation is virtually tied with coal-fired generation in recent months.

Leonhardt observes in this column that “[g]overnments have played a crucial role in financing many of the most important technological inventions of the past century,” including hydraulic fracturing, nuclear and hydropower, all of which have combined to reduce the carbon emissions associated with America’s electricity supply. Leonhardt makes the case for increasing the federal support for clean energy. At the recent peak, in 2009, all federal spending on clean energy — including money for research and subsidies for households and businesses — amounted to $44 billion. This year, Washington will spend about $16 billion. The scheduled expiration of the production tax credit for wind would help reduce the total to $14 billion next year. According to Leonhardt, the sums for clean-energy research that many scientists and economists support are not huge. A politically diverse group of experts recently set a target of $25 billion a year in federal spending on research and development (some of which could come from phasing out ineffective programs).