Building on his election victory speech and Inauguration Address, President Obama has used his first speech to a joint session of Congress to again put clean, renewable energy at the centre of his agenda.

Just a week after signing off on the biggest ever investment by a Government in clean energy — US$115 billion — Obama said, “the country that harnesses the power of clean, renewable energy will lead the 21st century.”

The US President’s speech leaves our Government and Opposition’s climate agendas looking decidedly weak and unambitious.

Both have failed to recognise the huge opportunities in clean technologies and the risk of Australia being left behind with an old and dirty economy, dependent on coal and oil. As Obama put it:

“The only way this century will be another American century is if we confront at last the price of our dependence on oil.”

Obama knows a global green gold rush is underway and Americans risk missing out.

“… it is China that has launched the largest effort in history to make their economy energy efficient. We invented solar technology, but we’ve fallen behind countries like Germany and Japan in producing it. New plug-in hybrids roll off our assembly lines, but they will run on batteries made in Korea.”

Underlying the weak climate policy in Australia is the failure of either major party to establish a positive frame for action on climate change.

The ALP in particular has been guilty of developing a frame that pitches its response as a middle-of the road balancing act, plodding a “responsible” course between the economic priorities of big polluters and the environmental priorities of, well, the planet.

The underlying assumption is that action to reduce carbon pollution will cost us. Ouch. Of course, as Garnaut and Stern concluded, failure to reduce carbon pollution will, in the long run, cost us much, much more.

Sure, framing is only framing — a means to an end. But it’s an essential foundation for ambitious policy. Here’s how Obama gets it right: he ties the key, broad values of leadership and economic security to his bold clean energy plans.

“It is time for America to lead again … to truly transform our economy, protect our security, and save our planet from the ravages of climate change, we need to ultimately make clean, renewable energy the profitable kind of energy.”

And he navigates the tricky waters of emissions trading (note to Penny Wong and Malcolm Turnbull) by clearly describing its purpose — to drive renewables and make them, wait for it, more profitable.

“… send me legislation that places a market-based cap on carbon pollution and drives the production of more renewable energy in America.”

He avoids the messy territory of “trading” (cue images of evil bankers salivating at deals and margins), instead adopting the “cap and invest” language of US environment groups.

“And to support that innovation, we will invest 15 billion dollars a year to develop technologies like wind power and solar power.”

Meanwhile, Labor and the Coalition remain locked in a battle to convince voters their scheme will “cost less”. One wonders why they continue to ignore Obama’s winning formula.

Peter Fray

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