The Ungreening of Obama

Posted January 8, 2011

Categories: Articles, Environment

Barack Obama was green when he entered the Oval Office. He was a relative newcomer to politics. He was also the most successful fundraiser in presidential history, hauling in more green than the two Democratic and Republican candidates in 2004 combined. And he was, more or less, an environmentalist.

Back in 2004, Amanda Little dug around in Obama’s past and declared in Grist magazine that he was a “bona fide, card-carrying, bleeding-heart greenie” going back to his days as an undergrad “trying to convince minority students at City College in Harlem to recycle,” and then as a community organizer in Chicago fighting for lead abatement in the Altgeld Gardens neighborhood. As the junior senator from Illinois, Obama got high marks from the League of Conservation Voters for his introduction or co-sponsorship of 100 environment-friendly bills from mercury reduction to raising fuel economy standards on cars.

Running for president, Obama promised to paint the town green. He proclaimed his “intergenerational” perspective, his recognition that “we are borrowing this planet from our children and our grandchildren.” After years of supporting the coal industry back in Illinois, he turned around to identify climate change as “one of the greatest moral challenges of our generation” and supported cutting carbon emissions 80 percent by 2050. He put sustainable energy policy at the center of his economic renewal, pledging to derive one-quarter of all U.S. energy from renewables by 2025 and to improve the efficiency of federal buildings and all new construction. There would also be tighter regulations on emissions and a much greater commitment to conservation. These promises also had a price tag: $150 billion alone for renewable energy investments.

Obama did indeed keep some of these promises. Dealing with the enormous economic crisis gifted to him by his predecessor, Obama emphasized green jobs in his stimulus package, with $78 billion in clean energy investment and $500 million specifically for job training around energy efficiency. He boosted funding for the Environmental Protection Agency, put more money into the national park system, and worked to improve water quality standards. In July, the administration brokered a major deal with auto manufacturers and environmentalists to raise the fuel economy standard, saving consumers money at the pump and reducing carbon emissions. On some of the big issues, like climate change legislation, the president came up against considerable congressional opposition. Given the flaws of the cap-and-trade mechanism at the core of this legislative initiative, which would have established a dubious market in carbon credits, it was a bittersweet failure.

This record would suggest a president who desperately wants to be Mr. Green but faces the dual political challenge of climate change skeptics and pollution industry lobbyists. You might fault him for his backbone but surely not his heart. Here was a politician who’d seen the (green) light.

But recent moves by Obama suggest a different interpretation of his environmental record.

In early September, the administration backed away from stronger air pollution standards, specifically on ozone, which essentially guarantees more smog. Obama decided to wait until 2013 to reevaluate the lax standards set by the Bush administration. It was, literally, a killer decision. On the House floor, Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) said that those opposed to the stricter standards would be responsible for 34,000 deaths by 2013. Politifact did the research and discovered that his accusation was mostly right (the range of estimated deaths from asthma, heart attack, and other ailments, according to the EPA, is 13,000 to 34,000).

The disappointment over the ozone decision has been overshadowed by the controversy over the Keystone XL oil pipeline, a nasty piece of work that would start in the tar sands of Alberta and run like an accident-waiting-to-happen through farmland and aquifers on its way to Texas. Squeezing oil out of the tar sands of Canada, meanwhile, is an environmental nightmare and generates three times the greenhouse gas emissions of conventional crude production. No one wants another war for oil – well, almost no one – but this isn’t the only alternative.

Protestors converged on Washington, DC at the end of August to demand that Obama stop Keystone XL. There was the ubiquitous activist Bill McKibben, several high-wattage celebrities, a couple of my IPS colleagues, and even a very disillusioned former administration official. The president said that the State Department had the ultimate say over the project (the same State Department that allowed TransCanada, the company that would build the pipeline, to choose who would conduct the environmental impact assessment). Obama could exercise his presidential prerogative and nix the project. He shows no sign of doing so – yet.

In the case of ozone and tar sands, the president has shown his desperation. With only a little more than a year before the next presidential election, the unemployment rate remains stuck a notch above 9 percent. The president knows that his political fortunes – as well as those of his party – depend almost exclusively on the state of the U.S. economy.

After all, Obama has managed to shore up his foreign policy vulnerability by killing Osama bin Laden (to satisfy the right), orchestrating the downfall of Gaddafi (to impress the liberal interventionists), and more or less following through on his promise to withdraw U.S. troops from Iraq (to placate the peace movement). He has shifted into populist overdrive by touting a jobs bill and half-embracing the Occupy Wall Street movement, all to distinguish himself from his plutocrat opponents and win back disgruntled progressives. The Republicans are very capable of shooting themselves in the foot by nominating a wacko or by somehow failing to unite the traditionalists and tea partyists. But the Dems can’t count on either of these contingencies.

So Obama is making a devil’s bargain over jobs. It’s not the first time, of course. He expanded oil and gas drilling, from Alaska to the Atlantic seaboard, and he opened up more public land for coal mining. But these latest decisions put the president at greater risk of losing both an activist base and the ever mercurial swing voters. Environmentalists form a much bigger voting bloc than the peace movement or trade unionists: over 60 percent of Americans, according to a 2010 Gallup poll, support the environmental movement.

But in his effort to grow the economy, Obama has allowed the Republican Party to label any and all government regulation as “job-destroying.” And he’s a few short weeks away from okaying a pipeline project that its advocates claim will create 20,000 jobs (critics point out that the pipeline wouldn’t create anywhere near that many jobs and certainly not as many as a comparable investment in the green economy). The same preoccupation with jobs led to Obama’s recent about-face on the free trade agreements – with South Korea, Panama, and Colombia – that he expressed so much skepticism about in Congress.

The real problem is not with Obama but with politics in general. The environment doesn’t obey four-year cycles. Global warming could care less about democracy. And, in turn, snail darters and polar bears don’t vote. Politicians who seek reelection want jobs now, not potential jobs, not future jobs, not if-everything-works-out-according-to-this-alternate-calculation jobs. Obama did invest in the new green economy, and that investment hasn’t yet produced the 500,000 new jobs a year that he promised. And, because of the rush to produce results, the administration got sucked into a scandal involving the solar manufacturer Solyndra, which involved pumping money into a dying firm.

Ideally, our elected representatives would acknowledge that environmental issues should rise above politics, that the fate of the world should not be held hostage to lobbyists and election cycles. We have to take the long view. Of course we need jobs, and we need them sooner, not later. But the only job we create when we imperil the environment is the job of gravedigger. And when the grave you’re digging is your own, there’s certainly no future in that profession.

Prisoner Swap

This week, Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit returned home after five years of captivity in Gaza, and more than a thousand Palestinians imprisoned in Israel were reunited with their families.

As Foreign Policy In Focus (FPIF) contributor Phyllis Bennis points out, the disparity in numbers reflects an asymmetry of power. “Palestinians, in this case Hamas, control the life of exactly one Israeli, a captured soldier (and in fact Hamas violated international law by denying Shalit access to the Red Cross),” she writes in The Prisoner Swap. “On the other side, even if we put aside Israeli control of land, borders, economy, food, education, and virtually every facet of life in the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem, Israel directly maintains power over the lives of thousands of Palestinian prisoners, some convicted in military courts (illegal under the Geneva Conventions), and others, including elected members of the Palestinian parliament, imprisoned under administrative detention orders (similarly illegal).”

This compromise has not diminished Israel’s increasing isolation in the region and globally. Even its fervent supporters are put off by the intransigence of the administration of Benjamin Netanyahu. “In light of the upcoming 2012 presidential elections, the Obama administration might suppose that it is safer to not ‘confront’ Israel, since this could undermine its support among pro-Israel voters and donors,” writes FPIF contributor Richard Heydarian in Arab Spring, Israeli Isolation. “However, even Jewish Americans and leading pundits have been expressing their discontent with Israel’s intransigence and blatant insensitivity to America’s interests in the region. For instance, the New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman has stated, ‘[the U.S. government] is fed up with Israel’s leadership but a hostage to its ineptitude, because the powerful pro-Israel lobby in an election season can force the administration to defend Israel at the UN, even when it knows Israel is pursuing policies not in its own interest or America’s.’”

One Month Later

The tenth anniversary of 9/11 took place one month ago. FPIF columnist Hannah Gurman has scanned the newspaper over the last several weeks and discovered a disturbing trend: the U.S. tendency to ignore its own global footprint. “The erasure of U.S. agency from news about the world in the last month is in keeping with the country’s general malaise about foreign affairs, a domestic desire to see the United States scale back its international ventures so the country can concentrate on its own crises,” she writes in Ten Years and One Month Later. “This is the appeal of counter-terrorism, which claims to offer a more targeted approach to the Global War on Terror, in which Special Forces, the CIA, and the NYPD smoke out the enemy with prowess and precision, leaving behind only the good news that the bad guys have been killed.”

The military-industrial complex, meanwhile, keeps rolling along. Montgomery County, a prosperous area just outside of Washington, DC, recently considered a resolution that recommended shifting money from the Pentagon to human needs. Given the current economic crisis, it was a no-brainer of a resolution. Except from the point of view of Lockheed Martin, a major military contractor in the county.

“Alerted to the resolution, Lockheed Martin switched into high gear,” FPIF contributor Jean Athey and I write in Resolution against the Machine. “One of its top lobbyists began calling council members. The Washington Post reported that some Council members were also called by a ‘state delegate, and the offices of County Executive Isiah Leggett (D), Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) and Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D).’” As a result, the Council president pulled the resolution.

Prizes, Protests, and Passing

Last month, poets conducted a Walk of Shame here in Washington, DC by visiting the embassies of Burma, Yemen, and Turkmenistan. These were not courtesy calls. As part of the international event called 100 Thousand Poets for Change, they stood outside and read poems in honor of the poets in those countries who can’t express themselves freely. They even honored the poet Ayat Al-Gormezi who was arrested for reading a pro-democracy poem in Bahrain.

“The Walk itself was a powerful act of witnessing, each embassy shuttered, the streets quiet,” writes FPIF contributor Sarah Browning in Poets Stand Up. “We handed out poems to those few who walked by and we honored the voices of the brave poets laboring under the most difficult of circumstances. When we were done, three of us drove to the Bahraini embassy and stood in front of a fence at a desolate, isolated spot, where I read Ayat Al-Gormezi’s words of defiance.”

One of the poets who participated in this event was FPIF contributor Kyi May Kaung who read her poem War on Roaches in front of the Burmese embassy. Here’s an excerpt that connects a household task to war:

Set up the four cuts
cut support cut food cut water cut communications
still see stray guerilla roaches, though all food including edible trash
carefully removed or wrapped
in plastic.

The Nobel Peace Prize this year went to three exceptional women: Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf and Leymah Gbowee of Liberia and Tawakul Karman of Yemen. “We cannot achieve democracy and lasting peace in the world unless women obtain the same opportunities as men to influence developments at all levels of society,” the committee chairman said as part of the announcement. Here’s a video link to my co-director Emira Woods talking on PBS NewsHour about the selection.

Finally, we took a look at the passing of Steve Jobs and the unfortunate business practices of Apple. “Maybe, with the loss of Steve Jobs, Apple’s rebel brand will eventually fade and the company’s executives will find it profitable to clean up their operation,” writes FPIF contributor Peter Certo in An Alternative Eulogy for Steve Jobs. “It would certainly befit the memory of a man President Obama called ‘brave enough to think differently.’ Jobs certainly thought differently, but the company he created acted the same as the competition.”

Next Monday, we’ll be hosting a discussion of the potential for dramatic change on the Korean peninsula, with Wooksik Cheong of South Korea’s Peace Network, Youn-Ae Park of the movement to block the naval base in Jeju, and me. Click here for more

FPIF, October 18, 2011

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