Robert Pollin is Professor of Economics at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst. He is the founding co-Director of the Political Economy Research Institute (PERI). His research centers on macroeconomics, conditions for low-wage workers in the US and globally, the analysis of financial markets, and the economics of building a clean-energy economy in the US. His latest book is Back to Full Employment. Other books include: A Measure of Fairness: the Economics of Living Wages and Minimum Wages in the United States, and Contours of Descent: US Economic Fractures and the Landscape of Global Austerity.
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Paul Jay, Senior Editor, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay in Baltimore. And welcome to this week’s edition of The PERI Report with Bob Pollin.
Now joining us from Amherst, Massachusetts, is the cofounder and codirector of the PERI institute, Bob Pollin.
Thanks for joining us.
Prof. Robert Pollin, Codirector, Political Economy Research Institute: Thank you very much for having me, Paul.
Jay: So what are you working on this week?
Pollin: Well, this week was really important in terms of the struggle, debate around climate change. Just yesterday, Sunday, there was 50,000, 60,000 people marching on Washington to support serious action around climate change. Five days before that, President Obama’s State of the Union address, he did come out more strongly than he had in many years in terms of introducing serious measures to control climate change. He said that in his State of the Union. That hearkened back to his inaugural speech, where he also made some strong statements as regards climate change, all to the good, all to the very good.
At the same time, unfortunately, in the very same speech—indeed, pretty much in the very same paragraph of the speech—Obama recommitted himself to allowing natural gas and oil exploration, drilling, production, to expand rapidly. Indeed, he said he was going to cut red tape to accelerate the rate at which natural gas and oil production are going to increase in this country. That’s very, very bad news.
Jay: Why is that bad news? Because his—if I understand him correctly, it’s sort of a transition: you exploit the fossil fuels now, but you start building the capacity for the green later. What’s wrong with that?
Pollin: What’s wrong with it is, if we take the research from climate scientists at all seriously—some people don’t, but let’s take it seriously.
Jay: And Obama says he does.
Pollin: Obama says he does. And if you do, there is simply no way that we are going to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by allowing natural gas production to expand. I want to state that very strongly. Natural gas, purported to be a clean fuel alternative to coal and oil, a clean fossil fuel alternative, it is cleaner than coal, it is moderately cleaner than oil in terms of emissions per unit of energy produced, but it is not clean. It is not clean, according to a standard by which we say we need to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 40 percent as of 2030. That’s the Obama administration’s own standard, to cut greenhouse gas emissions relative to today by 40 percent as of 2030. It’s a very, very ambitious agenda, and there is simply no way to get there if you were going to allow natural gas to expand. There is no way to get there.
So the fact that Obama is saying he wants natural gas to expand means that he isn’t taking his own climate change goals for 2030—much less 2050—but for 2030, he is not taking them seriously.
Jay: And he also—he didn’t specifically say it in this speech, but he’s said it before: he believes there’s such a thing as clean coal. And unless I’m mistaken, there’s no evidence that such a thing exists.
Pollin: Well, the technology that people talk about, a so-called carbon capture and sequestration—that is, you burn the coal, or for that matter you burn the natural gas or you burn the oil, and you have a technology that captures the carbon emissions, the bad stuff, and then inject—and carries those emissions through pipelines and injects them into crevices underneath the earth’s surfaces, finds those crevices, injects them, and then they stay there till the end of time. Some people have worked on it. There is no evidence that it can work. There’s certainly no evidence that it can work on a big scale. And there’s no evidence as to whether this can be done rapidly and in an affordable way.
What we know is that alternatively, investing in renewable energy, clean energy, clean renewables, solar, wind, small-scale hydro, geothermal, these things are becoming cost-competitive with fossil fuels even without hundreds of billions of dollars subsidies to build the technologies. So why not—if we’re going to invest in a whole new generation of technologies, what we should be doing is investing in the clean technologies that provide us a permanent solution to the problem of greenhouse gas emissions.
Jay: Now, the other thing he said in his speech—which he’s always said, and recommitted this: that this all has to be a market-based solution. Now, he also suggested that if the House doesn’t go along with this, he says by executive order he can order certain things. But I didn’t find it very clear whether he meant he’ll just order market-based solutions, which is something in the realm of cap and trade, ’cause that’s always what he’s talked about, or will he actually order some regulatory authority to actually mitigate, reduce carbon emission. It was very vague, I thought.
Pollin: Well, the—cap and trade is not on the books, the measure to set a cap on the amount of emissions. That’s not on the books. So that has to pass Congress.
What he was talking about was enforcing existing Environmental Protection Agency rules that are in place, which, if they are aggressively enforced like they should be, coal—basically, roughly half of the existing coal plants become not commercial, not commercially viable, and you would cut coal production around half of what it is today, just by enforcing existing standards. And this is research done not by me, but actually by—Deutsche Bank has a research branch which looks into these things on climate issues. So this is Deutsche Bank’s own findings. So you could get coal down by 50 percent by enforcing existing Environmental Protection Agency regulations.
But that does not get us anywhere with respect to oil or with respect to natural gas. And with respect to oil and natural gas, he is saying, let’s build them up, let’s keep expanding, let’s keep burning it. And, yes, maybe we’ll have this carbon capture technology in place, but it’s not on the horizen. Meanwhile, we’re going to keep spewing greenhouse gas emissions into the environment. And like I said, again, there is no way we get close to hitting Obama’s own targets for emissions reductions by 2030.
Jay: And he’s never suggested that he is going to crack down on coal in terms of regulatory authority. I mean, in the election campaign and such, I thought he more or less said the opposite of that.
Pollin: Well, I mean, what was in his speech, the State of the Union the other day, is saying, well, that, you know, maybe [incompr.] we don’t know that he [incompr.] The point is, look, there are people in coal mining communities who will be hurt. We need transitional policies for them. We can’t neglect that. There will be people hurt in the oil and gas industries if they’re not allowed to expand. That’s true. But that is the only thing that those things have to happen if we’re going to hit the emission targets. I can give you chapter and verse on all that, but that’s the end result.
So the rally that took place yesterday in Washington was a major step forward in advancing a serious agenda for climate change. And as you and I have talked about many times, advancing the agenda for controlling climate change can also be an agenda for job creation and can push us towards full employment.
Jay: Thanks for joining us, Bob.
Pollin: Thank you very much for having me.
Jay: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.