My computer has been broken for two weeks now, so I’m a little late with this, writing on borrowed equipment. I hope to be back on schedule by next week.
President Obama’s record on environmental issues is mixed. He has done some good things: enforced fishing limits, committed money to building a national high-speed rail network, and moved to get arsenic out of our drinking water, for example.
On the other hand, he has sabotaged the UN climate change negotiations (see Bill McKibben’s article for the details). He promoted a carbon-trading scheme that lets polluters continue to pollute as long as they finance phony development schemes in the less developed countries (see Annie Leonard’s “The Story of Cap and Trade” for more on this). And he pretends that the phrase “clean coal” has something to do with limiting greenhouse gas emissions. (“Clean coal” meant coal with very low sulfur, so that its use would reduce acid rain. But carbon dioxide comes from burning carbon – and that’s what coal is! What Obama really means is carbon sequestration – burning the coal, getting the same carbon dioxide, but then somehow bottling it up and storing it away.)
That was all in his first two years, when he was supposedly exercising visionary leadership! Now, beginning with the lame-duck session of Congress in late 2010, and continuing through the State of the Union address in 2011, we are seeing the new, more moderate Obama. Aside from a dumb joke about how salmon protection is irrational, environmental issues were presented only in the guise of programs to create jobs, and as investments in competitiveness. Steven Cohen of the Earth Institute at Columbia University has argued in Huffington Post that this is a sound climate change policy, just not presented as such – steath environmentalism, you might say.
There are two fatal weaknesses with this approach. First, it is not enough to meet the need. Most climate experts think we need to get greenhouse gas to 350 parts per billion in the atmosphere to avoid catastrophic effects. It is now 392 parts per billion, and climbing. Second, the reason we don’t get more effective policies is that most people do not understand the problem. That’s why the industry can talk about “clean coal,” it’s why Obama can talk about developing oil shale as an environmental policy, it’s why biofuels (simply carbon from another source) are presented as “green,” and why the climate change deniers have not gone the way of the smoking and cancer deniers. Only straight talk and clear explanations by the President and other political leaders will get us where we need to be. Steath environmentalism won’t do it.