In his final weeks in office, between preparing his farewell speech and tying up loose ends, President Obama penned an article for the journal Science to lay out the irreversible momentum of clean power and the renewable energy transition in America and describe why the incoming Trump administration will not be able to fully reverse the forces behind that momentum.
This article is significant because President Obama believes in science and the urgency of climate change, and the importance of imparting the seriousness of these issues before he turns over the keys to the Oval Office to someone who does not.
Also, he's not wrong. There's no turning back the dial to eight years ago, before we heard the Pope's call for climate action, back when rooftop solar was twice the price it is now, and when the Paris climate agreement wasn't anywhere in sight. Many state and local renewable energy markets will continue to push forward. But we can't take for granted the fact that policy decisions can and do determine the success of those markets. We can't sit back with the hope that some amount of momentum will continue when what we need is a revolution, and we don't know what changes Trump and his cronies will make in an attempt to hamper renewable energy progress.
We're at a turning point (and arguably a point of no-return) for truly ambitious climate action, and we don't have four years to wait. We need to immediately enact policies and programs that will allow for existing renewable energy markets to flourish - especially in order for community- and wildlife-friendly energy sources such as rooftop solar to succeed. There must also be sustained vigilance and mass action to ensure that new policies are created in order for a just renewable energy transition to happen in places where markets don't yet exist.
Subsidies, tax incentives and regulations all determine what kinds of energy projects become economically and practically feasible. This is true for fossil fuel and bio-fuel projects as well as sustainable ones. The shift in the past decade to natural gas as a "cleaner" energy source was only successful due to policy changes and investments. The same was true for the oil markets before that. These market transformations are driven in part by individual and organizational actions and investments, sure, but they require foresight and commitment at an institutional level to take hold.
The kind of institutional change needed at the federal level to combat climate change is more than unlikely under a Trump presidency and the suite of nominated climate deniers and oilmen he plans to surround himself with. Even if Rex Tillerson, former Exxon CEO and oilman at heart, is confirmed as Secretary of State, he can't single-handedly rescind the United States' commitment to the Paris climate agreement. But he could - and likely will - withdraw global investments in clean power via aid programs such as Power Africa while upping investments in fossil fuel economies via bad trade deals for years to come. The EPA, under nominee Scott Pruitt, could weaken or remove restrictions to emissions for the benefit of extractive fossil fuel development here in the U.S. The Department of Energy is responsible for investment and research for renewable energy sources, as well as energy efficiency, and if that cabinet position goes to Rick Perry, who couldn't even remember the agency during his failed presidential bid, there's not much hope for keeping fossil fuel interests from driving those policies either.
All of those appointments would be disastrous on their own, but paired with the most aggressively anti-climate Congress we've seen, we're facing an unprecedented step backwards.
We'll have to fight to protect existing policies that have allowed us to come as far as we have in just a few years. But in order to sustain the clean energy trend at the pace necessary to make a dent in emissions - especially as the oil and gas industries celebrate fewer federal regulations - state and local governments will have to step up and take action.
Cities and states can put in place the same kinds of policies and programs that have previously been enacted at the federal level to encourage renewable energy growth. States with weak renewable energy markets can look to climate leaders such as California and Massachusetts for policy models to apply in their own states. By enacting policies that support renewable energy markets - particularly those that encourage community-led and wildlife-friendly energy development such as distributed solar - other states can ensure some amount of market resiliency in the face of otherwise unpredictable and inevitably disastrous attacks on climate solutions.
President Obama is right in pointing to the many economic benefits and international momentum of clean energy. But now is not the time to step back and cross our fingers that this progress will maintain, or that existing policy structures will remain. And it's not the time to decide that the rate at which clean energy adoption is happening is sufficient to meet our climate goals. (It's not.) Now we stand up and fight, for a energy future that's better for all - with the least harm to our land, water, climate and wildlife.