Obama takes forceful stand on climate and tech

President cites issue of climate change investment during inaugural address

In his second inaugural address, President Barack Obama has argued with certainty and forcefulness about the dangers of climate change and the role of technology in fighting it.

It wasn't just a moral point for Obama, but a jobs issue as well. The president, sworn in to a second term officially yesterday - and ceremonially again today -- argued that U.S. competitiveness is tightly linked with its national investments in renewable energy technology. "The path towards sustainable energy sources will be long and sometimes difficult," said Obama. "But America cannot resist this transition; we must lead it."

Obama said that the U.S. "cannot cede to other nations the technology that will power new jobs and new industries - we must claim its promise. That is how we will maintain our economic vitality."

The president led this call with blunt statement about the moral consequences of inaction. "We will respond to the threat of climate change, knowing that the failure to do so would betray our children and future generations," he said.

Obama drew a clear link between climate change and recent powerful storms, droughts and Western fires in the U.S.

The Obama administration is, of course, being urged by a lot of people to take stronger action on climate change. But it is an area of especially strong interest in Silicon Valley, and people such as John Doerr, a partner at Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers and Microsoft's Bill Gates, have warned that the U.S. is putting itself at economic risk if it cedes the renewable energy sector to China.

There is a very strong affinity, as well as growing investment, by technology companies in energy-related activities. Some companies, such as Google, are making direct investments in alternative energy. Many others are investing in and building technologies used in the renewable sector. A major part of IBM's Smarter Planet initiative, for instance, focuses on energy and environment resource management.

The U.N., in a report on global renewable energy investment, said that China continues to lead the U.S. in investments in this area. Obama, in a speech that made a number of references to technology and science, also spoke directly to a need to retain "bright young students and engineers" to ensure they are "are enlisted in our workforce rather than expelled from our country."

Obama has argued previously for making it easier for foreign students, particularly those who earn an advanced degree from a U.S. university, to remain here after graduation.

There have been bipartisan bills introduced in the U.S. House and Senate to accomplish that, but all these efforts have been put aside pending action on a comprehensive immigration bill. These efforts typically call for near automatic awarding of permanent residency for science, technology, engineering and math advance degree grads once they get a job in these fields.

In other references to technology, Obama emphasized the importance of a national commitment to science and technology, especially at the national labs. "No single person can train all the math and science teachers we'll need to equip our children for the future, or build the roads and networks and research labs that will bring new jobs and businesses to our shores," said Obama.

U.S. investment in research and development is slowing, and China is on track to surpass the U.S. in science and technology spending in 10 years, according to a Global R&D Funding Forecast prepared by Battelle, a research and technology development organization. Obama has called for R&D spending that is roughly 3% of GDP; the U.S. is now forecast to spend about 2.6%.

"We must harness new ideas and technology to remake our government, revamp our tax code, reform our schools, and empower our citizens with the skills they need to work harder, learn more, and reach higher," said Obama.

Patrick Thibodeau covers cloud computing and enterprise applications, outsourcing, government IT policies, data centers and IT workforce issues for Computerworld. Follow Patrick on Twitter at @DCgov or subscribe to Patrick's RSS feed. His e-mail address is pthibodeau@computerworld.com.

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