I pulled out the latest issue of Green Futures for a bit of light relief. It instantly lifted my mood as it reminded me just… how exciting sustainability issues can be.
He’s been touted as America’s great green hope, but Polly Ghazi asks: What we can really expect an Obama presidency to deliver?
So great are the expectations heaped upon the next president of the White House that Dickens’s novel might have been written for Barack Obama.
Pressing problems he’s expected to solve range from a stricken economy and flawed health care system to the costly wars of attrition in Iraq and Afghanistan. And then there’s the looming matter, as the president-elect himself characterises it, of “a planet in peril”.
On the campaign trail, Obama repeatedly emphasised his commitment to creating several million “green collar” jobs through massive investments in a “clean energy future”. He also widely advertised his intention of joining the dots between energy, climate, job creation and national security policies. But the real test – and the subject of fevered speculation among US environmentalists – will be whether he follows through once ensconced in the Oval Office.
“My presidency will mark a new chapter in American leadership on climate change”
Will he put real flesh on the bones of his picture vision, and set the US on the path to a low-carbon economy? Or will he do what some of his advisers are urging; consolidate his position, seek small, incremental victories, and avoid confrontations with powerful interests such as the US coal and oil industries?
The three-month transition period and the Obama administration’s first 100 days in office should provide some clues for tealeaf readers to divine. And the early signs are encouraging.
While the president-elect has not yet made any major environmental appointments, Jason Grumet, his transitional energy adviser, has a strong pedigree as director of the non-partisan National Commission on Energy Policy and is expected to take a key energy post. Unofficially, Obama advisers have also floated the idea of raising the profile of climate and energy issues by appointing a high-profile climate change tsar and/or a White House Energy Security Council to co-ordinate energy and climate policy.
And last week [November 19] Obama made an unexpected video appearance at a bipartisan climate summit of US state governors, convened by California’s Arnold Schwarzenegger, at which he plainly stated his intent to turn the page on eight years of George Bush’s global warming denial. “My presidency will mark a new chapter in American leadership on climate change,” he said, pledging to “vigorously re-engage” in international climate negotiations, and to enact a US-wide greenhouse gas cap and trade system with annual emissions reduction targets. (And, although he won’t be going to December’s United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change meeting in Poznan in person, he revealed that he would be asking members of Congress who do attend to report back to him.)
But these are still pledges and matters of process, rather than policy substance. So once he takes office, what signs will point to where Obama ranks environment and climate issues on his pressing ‘to do list’? Here are some key issues to watch.
How he frames the fiscal stimulus package: Rescuing the ailing economy is Obama’s number one priority. Depending on how he spends the hundreds of billion of dollars at his disposal, it could also present a major opportunity to turn the US economic juggernaut in a new direction. “Obama is going to face multiple challenges… which can’t be addressed sequentially as there is limited time and budget,” says Manish Bapna, executive vice president of the World Resources Institute. “The fiscal stimulus package represents an opportunity to tackle the economic crisis, energy security and climate change at the same time, through investments in clean energy.”
Whether there is swift and separate climate legislation: In his videotaped speech to the governors’ climate summit, Obama renewed his commitment to a GHG cap and trade bill that would deliver an 80% reduction in 1990 emissions by 2050, prompting Eileen Claussen, president of the Pew Center on Global Climate Change to enthuse that he was “ready to roll up his sleeves and deliver the action needed to protect our climate, our economy and our national security”. But it will not be easy to get such legislation past conservative Democratic members of Congress, especially those from coal states. Rather than pick such a fight, some influential members of Congress are reportedly urging Obama to limit his early actions on climate to packing the fiscal stimulus bill with clean energy investments and tax incentives. Such a watered down approach, however, would send a disastrous signal to the world, and bode badly for agreement at Copenhagen in 2010 on a new global climate treaty.
How he deals with the auto industry bailout: With Congress dithering over whether to save General Motors, Chrysler and Ford, it looks increasingly likely that the fate of America’s car industry, and its 240,000 jobs, will fall into Obama’s lap. He has made it clear – telling President Bush to his face – that he wants a bailout to prevent the massive economic hardship the industry’s collapse would bring. But if he does not tie taxpayers’ investment to the building of a new generation of greener cars, he will rightfully raise environmentalists’ ire. “If a public bailout of the auto industry is to be justified, aggressive fuel efficiency standards and other conditions must be put in place to fundamentally transform the industry’s business model,” says Bapna. “Anything less will be a major missed opportunity.”
Whether he reverses anti-environmental Bush administration decisions: Obama has publicly pledged to sign an executive order to reverse the US Environmental Protection Agency’s ruling that California cannot regulate CO2 emissions from vehicle exhausts. Doing so would free Governor Schwarzenegger to require new vehicles to meet much improved fuel efficiency standards, and a dozen more states are expected to follow suit. President Bush also recently rescinded a decades-old executive order which banned drilling for oil off US waters. If Obama does not issue a new order, or Congress renew an expired moratorium, drilling could in principle soon be permitted as close to three miles from US shores.
How he deals with biofuels: As the senator for the Midwestern state of Illinois, Obama was very supportive of biofuels development on US farmland, despite mounting evidence of the negative impact the biofuels boom was having on global food prices. His approach will very much depend on who he appoints as agriculture secretary.
Of course, Obama can only realistically move as fast and as far as his public is willing to go. The good news here is that recent public opinion polls suggest that Americans are ready to embrace clean energy if it brings new jobs and bolsters national security as well as counters climate change. In an October poll by the Pew Research Center, 87% of interviewees said the US should be “more dependent on alternative energy” while 75% supported the “United States taking action on global warming”.
“Rescuing the ailing economy is a perfect opportunity to tackle the credit crunch, energy security and climate change at the same time – through investments in clean energy”
Most of industry, too, is onboard. With more than half US states now developing or implementing regional greenhouse gas cap and trade programs, the utility and energy sectors want a federal system in place, with a single set of rules. Even the oil industry is bending to the winds of change. “We are not going to fix the economy over the long term without taking care of energy,” Red Cavaney, CEO of the American Petroleum Institute, told Business Week a fortnight after election day.
The expectations may be great, but the time is also ripe to see them fulfilled.
Polly Ghazi is US correspondent for Green Futures and writer/editor for the World Resources Institute.