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Obama: the Post-Environmental President
Adam Stein, 5 Nov 08

What does the election mean for climate change and energy policy?


There’s been a bit of chatter in recent weeks about whether an Obama victory would truly be as transformative as many progressives hope and expect. Some have quietly suggested that nothing in Obama’s record, temperament, or platform should make us expect dramatic gestures. They say that those who think otherwise are letting the man’s remarkable personal story cloud their judgment of his governing philosophy, or discounting the extent to which every president is constrained by Congress.

There’s something to this, and ultimately any president’s legacy is determined as much by events as by his or her personal qualities. That said, I think that Obama’s presidency has a good chance of being a transformative one, particularly in the area of climate and energy. Circumstances have delivered up a set of interlinked crises — economic, environmental, and security-related — at just the moment that we’ve elected a person who seems to fully grasp the scope of the problem and the proper shape of the solution.

Obama has often been referred to as the first post-racial politician. When we someday evaluate his tenure, we may come to see him instead as the first post-environmental president, the leader who was able to connect the dots on energy, the economy, and security in way that elevates these issues above narrow interest group concerns and places them at the center of the political agenda.

To be sure, Obama is not the first politician to try to tie these issues together. When Richard Nixon launched Project Independence, he declared that by 1980 the U.S. would no longer rely on any other country for its energy needs. (Nixon also kicked off a program to design a “virtually pollution-free automobile” by 1975.) On the other end of the political spectrum, Al Gore has been plying these waters for years (with considerably more credibility and understanding).

So what’s different about the present moment? For starters, the world is a different place than it was even a few months ago. The economy is in tatters, and experts of all ideological stripes agree on the need for stimulus spending. Energy security, however abused a concept, has taken on ever-greater salience in a time of war and high oil prices. And the evidence for man-made climate change is now incontrovertible.

At this singular moment, Obama, like few other politicians, seems to grasp the big picture while also getting the little details right. This is most evident not in his speeches, but in his detailed, off-the-cuff remarks to journalists. From a recent interview with Joe Klein:

The biggest problem with our energy policy has been to lurch from crisis to trance. And what we need is a sustained, serious effort. Now, I actually think the biggest opportunity right now is not just gas prices at the pump but the fact that the engine for economic growth for the last 20 years is not going to be there for the next 20, and that was consumer spending…

And what that means is that just from a purely economic perspective, finding the new driver of our economy is going to be critical. There is no better potential driver that pervades all aspects of our economy than a new energy economy.

I was just reading an article in the New York Times by Michael Pollen [sic] about food and the fact that our entire agricultural system is built on cheap oil. As a consequence, our agriculture sector actually is contributing more greenhouse gases than our transportation sector…That’s just one sector of the economy. You think about the same thing is true on transportation. The same thing is true on how we construct our buildings. The same is true across the board.

For us to say we are just going to completely revamp how we use energy in a way that deals with climate change, deals with national security and drives our economy, that’s going to be my number one priority when I get into office.

That’s right: a president who can name check Michael Pollan. Later in the interview he speaks favorably of cap-and-dividend, an appealingly progressive form of climate change plan. This is heady stuff for policy wonks, but more importantly, it’s the right angle from which to approach the whole set of interlinked problems.

Here he is more recently speaking to Rachel Maddow:

One of, I think, the most important infrastructure projects that we need is a whole new electricity grid. Because if we’re going to be serious about renewable energy, I want to be able to get wind power from North Dakota to population centers, like Chicago. And we’re going to have to have a smart grid if we want to use plug-in hybrids then we want to be able to have ordinary consumers sell back the electricity that’s generated from those car batteries, back into the grid. That can create 5 million new jobs, just in new energy.

Again, wonky stuff, but substantively correct and also tied into important broader themes of growth. This is post-environmentalism at its best.

Congress, of course, remains a significant hurdle, but even here there’s reason to be optimistic. An Obama advisor recently signaled the new administration’s willingness to use the Clean Air Act to regulate greenhouse gas emissions through the EPA. As a matter of policy, this is a problematic way to address climate change. As a legislative strategy to force lawmakers into action, it could be brilliantly effective.

So that’s the good news. What is there to be worried about? Some of the small-bore stuff that agitates other enviros doesn’t concern me much at all. Obama’s statements of support for nuclear energy and clean coal are so finely calibrated as to be harmless. On ethanol, on the the other hand, his pandering seems more sincerely felt. Not the biggest deal in the world, but an area in which greens should be watchful.

My biggest concern, I suppose, is that Obama hasn’t yet really sold his environmental vision to the American public. Klein calls him out on this: “So why haven’t you given the big speech about it?” I think that speech is coming, and I likewise believe that we could be entering a transformative era for environmental politics, but a lot of us have been waiting too long to take anything for granted.

Adam Stein is a co-founder of TerraPass. He writes on issues related to carbon, climate change, policy, and conservation.

Photo credit:Flickr/BohPhoto.

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I am hopeful that Obama will make renewable energy a priority, and in the process, create jobs and clean the air we all breathe.

Posted by: Joyce on 6 Nov 08

Let me tell you, he's not only America's hope, but also the world's. If the USA won't show the way, who will? There's much good will in say UE but so little integrity...

Posted by: hat_eater on 6 Nov 08

Obama's response to today's proposal by Stephen Harper (Canada's Prime Minister), linking Alberta's tar sands development to US energy security and climate change, will be very telling.

My guess is that as details emerge, major US funding for carbon sequestration and storage R&D will be near the top of Harper's list. I hope the new US administration will move well beyond this, setting energy efficiency, renewable energy and transparent carbon accounting as the highest priorities on both sides of the 49th.

Obama's off-the-cuff remarks indicate that he, at least, may understand these fundamentals; the next few months will be most interesting, not to say critical.

Posted by: Ian Theaker on 6 Nov 08

With the election of Barack Obama, a new day is surely dawning for the family of humanity. We have good reasons to be hopeful. The agonizing throes of the severe and colossal storm we have endured in the past several years have produced an unexpected outcome. The air is being cleansed and the dark clouds that had been gathering on the horizon are being blown away.

Al Gore has reminded all of us that now is the time for intellectual honesty and moral courage as necessary attributes for responding ably to the human-driven global challenges which are looming ominously before humankind. As the horrendous, once in a century storm is being swept away by benevolent winds of change, perhaps we will see that honest and courageous activities of many people will begin to replace cascading, self-interested behavior which appears to be borne of whatsoever is politically convenient, economically expedient and socially fashionable.

Perhaps sufficiently reality-oriented changes in policymaking and action planning, changes that protect biodiversity from mass extinction, prevent more wanton environmental degradation and preserve Earth's body from relentless dissipation as well as the human community from endangerment, are in the offing.

Posted by: Steven Earl Salmony on 7 Nov 08

I believe he (Obama) needs to display “wisdom” and focus on the big 3. One may have to go down and the rise of a green player to replace the fallen may need to be his biggest move! If I was an advisor to President Obama, I would encourage him to not bailout anyone-else (excluding the middle class) and focus on transitioning from the traditional economic giants to investing in the new green giants! One of my own favorite quotes is:

“I happen to deeply agree with the wisdom of Tom Friedman (that we cannot consume of way out of this mess and “Have you ever been to a revolution where nobody gets hurt?”). The fact is that the current economic conditions will cause a lot of companies to close their doors (websites too), and they will die off altogether due to lack of understanding the competitive (innovative) landscape. Just look at Detroit and the Big 3 for example! Those that will fight to stay alive will need to figure out — What’s Next?

I believe that the New Green Economy will include the Rise of Green Real Estate Markets paired with the continued success of Cleantech, Clean Energy Markets, and large scale shifts toward Clean Transportation, and the Greening of the IT Industries (plus a fourth quarter of record investment!!), which will lead to a boom in “American Made” Green Collar Jobs and the creation of new wealth. The trick is: “who will get it right??” Execution makes all the difference for most of these opportunities and green investors need to pay more attention to the items that management claim they can achieve.” - Yeves Perez, Founder of - Nov 2008

See more on talk on Fast Company:

Posted by: EcoConnoisseur on 7 Nov 08

I think that a more important change needs to be a HUMAN change, not just that of placing all of our hope, aspirations, and dreams on the shoulder of "ONE" person. Yes, he is a great man, but still a man. In order to effect a lasting change on society, we need to effect a change within ourselves and our children now and into the future, because we are the "society" of which everyone speaks of. We make up the U.S. and any other country that may be present here. We as a people, need to start recognizing that the threat to our survival is "US". We are the ones driving the cars that pollute, not recycling, the list goes on and on. I don't know about you, but I am ready to take accountability for my actions and move toward a better future. What about you?

Posted by: Aleyciuss on 12 Nov 08

We can all contribute to cleaning up the environment if we would move from gas combustion engines to electric vehicles.

This is great, Electric Vehicle advocates need to check this out.

First legitimate electric car coming to the market.
Safe, reliable and affordable.


Video-You Tube:

BeGreen Advocate

Posted by: BeGreen on 14 Nov 08

I'm also optimistic that Obama will eventually proffer a plan for a sustainable-energy system. In the meantime, we need to realize that there are other pressing concerns right now - unless the economy is mended, we'll never get the luke-warm advocates and the naysayers to jump onto such a cost/labor intensive policy.

Posted by: mbc on 8 Feb 09

I have the new energy idea that everyone is looking for. It doesn't produce any carbon and is an endless free energy source. Please contact me have tried to contact whoever but have had no luck.

Posted by: Darren Swinney on 1 Mar 09

Ecofasa turns waste to biodiesel using bacteria

A group of Spanish developers working for a company called Ecofasa just announced a new biofuel made up from trash. This isn't a biodiesel made from used frying oil; instead, it's made from general urban waste which is treated by bacteria. The result of that bacteria? Fatty acids that can be used to produce standard biodiesel. According to the company's CEO, the process is fully biologic, competes with no feedstock and is really sustainable. However, the process doesn't yield that much actual fuel: just one liter of biodiesel from 10 kg of trash. The project is now in a development phase, but Ecofasa said that a commercially viable model could be ready in three to four years.

Posted by: Francisco on 7 Jul 09

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