The First 100 Days and the Environment


5-01-09, 10:00 am

Obama’s short time in office has been filled with action, and many of those actions will positively affect the environment and US environmental policy.

These positives start with several speeches in which Obama stressed the renewed importance his administration will place on real science, on supporting scientific research, and on having real science advice. It is hard to overestimate the fundamental shift this represents from the Bush years, where government scientists were censured, told to limit their Congressional testimony in ways that perverted their real results, and where funding for scientific research, especially on climate change, was cut and ignored.

Another highly significant change is the posture of the administration towards the next round of climate treaty negotiations. Unlike the Bush administration which abrogated the Kyoto Accords, Obama’s administration is taking an active role in the preparations, a 180-degree turnaround.

Also worth noting are several of Obama’s appointments, especially Stephen Chu as Secretary of Energy (a Nobel Prize-winning physicist) and John Holdren as Science Advisor. While in my opinion Chu is too enamored of nuclear energy, both are reputable scientists who understand the climate challenges the world faces. Holdren has been campaigning on the issue for years now – you can find a slide show he developed for his presentations on global warming here.

In his budget, Obama included a serious proposal for a cap-and-trade system for limiting carbon dioxide emissions. While a cap-and-trade system at best can only slow the rate of increase, it can be one important part of a more broadly-based climate change program. This is one of the proposals expected to have the most difficulty passing Congress this year. As a kicker, however, the Environmental Protection Agency has finally declared that global warming is a hazard to human health and welfare and that carbon dioxide emissions from human activity should be regulated. Even if the cap-and-trade system doesn’t pass Congress, the EPA can play a crucial role in starting to tackle climate challenges. (In one of the more ridiculous examples of Bush White House bumbling, the White House dealt with an earlier EPA report on carbon, which had been ordered by the Supreme Court, by refusing to open the e-mail to which the report was attached!). It will be possible for the EPA to take a larger role on these issues due in part to a large increase in its budget, another policy Obama deserves major credit for.

Also on the congressional front, the Waxman-Markley Clean Energy Bill has been introduced, which if passed would give the government many tools to fight global warming, though like the President’s proposals the bill has some important weaknesses, discussed below.

Also noteworthy is Obama’s appointment of Van Jones, a long-time campaigner for green jobs and for dealing with the environmental problems of inner cities, as Special Advisor for Green Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation at the White House Council on Environmental Quality.

Of significance also are the many provisions in the Stimulus Bill for green jobs, energy, subsidies for home insulation, and mass transit.

Due no doubt in part to Vice President Biden, Obama has also proposed serious new investment in high-speed rail in several corridors, and is pushing auto companies to step up their development of hybrids, electric vehicles, and improved mileage standards.

Added together, all these and more are a vast improvement over the previous administration – not just cosmetic changes or changes in rhetoric, but substantive, real, important changes in policy, approach, investment and international negotiations. (See 'The Green FDR: Obama's First 100 Days Make – And May Remake – History,' by Joseph Romm for more information.)

However, there are some serious short-comings to Obama’s environmental programs as well, and there is a need for mass organization to push his administration further.

Those short-comings include a commitment to “clean coal,” something which we should indeed put money into researching but which for the present is just an illusion. His administration also leans too much toward the development of more nuclear power plants, even though there is no realistic plan to deal with nuclear waste, not to mention the potential for accidents (like the Japanese nuclear reactor which was damaged in an earthquake recently), and not to mention the health risks for miners and their families and communities who dig up and process the uranium.

As I have already mentioned, while the cap-and-trade program proposed in the budget can be one part of a bigger program to deal with climate change challenges, by itself it can do no more than slow the rate of increase of carbon dioxide emissions, so to the degree that climate change proposals are limited to cap-and-trade, to that same degree their effectiveness will be limited.

Similarly, while Obama’s initiatives on mass transit and rapid rail are important steps, they are only the beginning of what is needed in these arenas.

The sum total of the changes on environmental policy made thus far by the Obama administration in less than 100 days is amazing. Obama has kept many of his campaign promises on the environmental issues already, and promises more to come. We should all be very encouraged by the steps already taken.

We also need to be mindful that ice at the poles is melting faster than the worst predictions of a few years ago, carbon dioxide emissions worldwide are still increasing, and that no president or administration by itself can accomplish what needs to be done. The environmental movement and organizations, in alliance with labor, civil rights, and other mass movements, need to apply pressure on Congress, including on many Democrats, to get with the program, to seriously tackle the life-threatening nature of the environmental challenges that face the whole world. The Obama administration does not act in a vacuum, it acts based in part on public understanding, public pressure, international pressure, and the necessity of saving humanity.