Obama Delivers a Defining Speech on Climate Change

He also delivers a comprehensive plan, but in this case the rhetoric may be more important than the details

3 min read
Obama Delivers a Defining Speech on Climate Change

The best thing about President Obama's landmark speech about global warming today was that he delivered it in the hot sun, standing in front of a building at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., mopping his brow and upper lip frequently. The subliminal imagery was as trenchant as the words.

The worst thing about the speech was some of the advance work: No national network or cable channel showed the address in its entirety, despite its stated importance, and no complete transcript of the talk was readily available at the White House site or otherwise, before, during or immediately after its delivery.

This was unfortunate, because Obama gave a very fine speech indeed. Although it contained no major surprises, its comprehensiveness and meticulous attention to detail were impressive and even somehow moving. No doubt that is why, when Obama paused toward the end of the talk and said, simply, "That is my plan," the audience of Georgetown students spontaneously jumped to its feet and treated the president to a rousing standing ovation.

As expected, the heart of his speech was his announcement that the Environmental Protection Agency will take action to regulate greenhouse gas emissions, first from new coal-fired power plants, then from existing ones. Obama already had made it clear that if he could not obtain a carbon reduction bill from Congress, he would have EPA issue such regulations under authority of the Clean Air Act, as directed by a 2007 U.S. Supreme Court decision.

Obama's climate action plan also calls for accelerated development and deployment of clean energy technologies, including much more wind and solar generation on public lands; attention to energy-efficient buildings and appliances; tightening fuel efficiency standards for heavy vehicles; Federal funding for hardening infrastructure against climate-induced disasters; and, not least, renewed U.S. leadership in global climate diplomacy. The whole climate plan is summarized by a nicely prepared set of visuals, posted on the White House website.

In what was perhaps the strongest part of his speech, toward the end, Obama made it clear that global warming cannot be stopped from one moment to the next, and that the United States acting alone cannot slow climate change and avert its worst effects. He indicated that besides entering into a variety of bilateral and multilateral agreements with countries like India, China and Brazil, to promote adoption of clean tech and relatively low-carbon fossil fuels, the United States will play its part in seeking to negotiate a universally binding carbon reduction treaty. He compared the global situation to what happens when you apply the brakes to stop a car--you have to reckon that slowing down will take some time, before you can stop and then put the car in reverse.

Obama consistently talked about climate risk reduction in a down-to-earth way, calling upon his mostly young listeners to carry the message to a widening circle of activists, to "invest and divest" for the sake of a better future for their children and grandchildren. He said voters needed to communicate to politicians that climate change is a defining issue, and that politicians need to pay less attention to vested interests and more attention to posterity.

Perhaps the job of spreading the word is not quite as formidable as the president suggested. In a new public opinion poll released by Georgetown University on the eve of the talk, 87 percent of the respondents favored EPA action on carbon emissions—78 percent of Republicans and 94 percent of Democrats. It appears that the president, sensing a basic shift in opinion, decided to seize the moment and declare climate change an issue for the ages.

Photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images

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Smokey the AI

Smart image analysis algorithms, fed by cameras carried by drones and ground vehicles, can help power companies prevent forest fires

7 min read
Smokey the AI

The 2021 Dixie Fire in northern California is suspected of being caused by Pacific Gas & Electric's equipment. The fire is the second-largest in California history.

Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images

The 2020 fire season in the United States was the worst in at least 70 years, with some 4 million hectares burned on the west coast alone. These West Coast fires killed at least 37 people, destroyed hundreds of structures, caused nearly US $20 billion in damage, and filled the air with smoke that threatened the health of millions of people. And this was on top of a 2018 fire season that burned more than 700,000 hectares of land in California, and a 2019-to-2020 wildfire season in Australia that torched nearly 18 million hectares.

While some of these fires started from human carelessness—or arson—far too many were sparked and spread by the electrical power infrastructure and power lines. The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire) calculates that nearly 100,000 burned hectares of those 2018 California fires were the fault of the electric power infrastructure, including the devastating Camp Fire, which wiped out most of the town of Paradise. And in July of this year, Pacific Gas & Electric indicated that blown fuses on one of its utility poles may have sparked the Dixie Fire, which burned nearly 400,000 hectares.

Until these recent disasters, most people, even those living in vulnerable areas, didn't give much thought to the fire risk from the electrical infrastructure. Power companies trim trees and inspect lines on a regular—if not particularly frequent—basis.

However, the frequency of these inspections has changed little over the years, even though climate change is causing drier and hotter weather conditions that lead up to more intense wildfires. In addition, many key electrical components are beyond their shelf lives, including insulators, transformers, arrestors, and splices that are more than 40 years old. Many transmission towers, most built for a 40-year lifespan, are entering their final decade.

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