We’re at the Upper floor of The Newseum in Washington DC (News Museum) for what Politico newspaper calls its PoliticoPro Events on energy. The discussion peaks, and all of the sudden, I can’t seem to get out of my head that 1985 Aretha Franklin song “Who’s Zoomin’ Who”. Did that ever happen to you? Random song just pops into your head, and for no reason.
But this time, I think there was a reason. The question really is: Who IS zooming who when it comes to energy and climate? Who’s making progress (however that may be defined)? The US or China? Congress or the Obama Administration? Business or Government? Who has reducing carbon emissions more as priority?
Well, Politico did a good job of bringing together a group of legislators, journalists, and US government officials to address the Future of Energy. You had Republican Senator John Barrasso from the coal state of Wyoming and clean energy aficionado and Democratic Congressman John Garamendi of California going fist to cuffs over coal versus clean energy tech vis-à-vis questions of economic development, national security, etc.
But Politico also did the discussion a disservice. Heather Zichal, Deputy Assistant to President Obama for Energy and Climate Change got a free pass. Zichal was able to sit with the Politico moderator alone, answer her own set of questions; not engage with Senator Barrasso, Congressman Garamendi, or Margot Anderson of the Bipartisan Policy Center (or the audience for that matter); and high tail it out of the Newseum after sticking to “the message” when responding to probably some of the most important questions affecting our planet.
At one point Politico moderator Darren Samuelsohn asked three different questions on climate and the approval of the keystone pipeline. He got three different answers from Zichal: State Department is working on this. It’s in the hands of the State Department. We’re waiting on the State Department.
Aside from Zichal’s regurgitation of White House talking points, she did highlight an important approach of the Obama Administration: multiple international fora. Zichal said that the Administration is “trying to advance the (energy and climate) conversation in as many international forums as possible”. Although President Obama did participate in the 2009 Climate Conference in Copenhagen; Zichal added, the President also established the Major Economies Forum on Energy and Climate (MEF). She mentioned the Administration just sent a delegation to Poland for a conference on “energy efficiency and the built environment”.
Zichal’s mention of “multiple fora” was music to my ears. My 2012 edition of Visions for the Global Economy chapter entitled “The World Outgrows Kyoto” asked the question: “Perhaps climate stability can only be achieved with alternative fora?” I put forward that what is needed is “some sort of G20” on climate “to break the immediate impasse” between China and the US—now the world’s two leading emitters of carbon into our planet’s atmosphere.
After Zichal high-tailed it out of the Newseum, Senator Barrasso grabbed his chair on stage and dug his fangs into the Administration by saying “nobody listens to President Obama on anything”. He referred to China. And he threw Russia in his sentence also (I guess to be fashionable in this new era of all things Snowden).
We could have remained at the Newseum all day discussing the merits (or the lack thereof) of natural gas versus coal. Margot Anderson played her “bipartisan” role by explaining the economy’s transition from fossil fuel to natural gas and other new sources of energy, but Congressman Garamendi left on a somber note.
The Congressman talked about how the current Congress—recently coined “least effective in history” for its lack of action and bipartisan compromise—has also taken its toll on energy and climate. He stated that the recent House of Representatives Fiscal Year 2014 Energy and Water Appropriations Bill guts funding for research and development of new energy technologies—putting the US at a distinct disadvantage (vis-à-vis China) when it comes to global economic competitiveness and international climate negotiations.
Therefore, you may ask again: Who’s Zoomin’ Who? Right now, for all the disagreement between Barrasso and Garamendi, I’m sure they would agree: not the US! Neither would claim to be satisfied—either for coal or clean energy tech, respectively.
I can tell you, I’m not sure Who’s Zoomin’ Who, but unless we start getting more serious about the future of energy and climate in the US, we may find ourselves completely out-Zoomed (economically, environmentally, and in terms of our national security and competitiveness).