Fresh air or hot air?

Nicole Colson looks at Barack Obama's record on the environment during the first months of his presidency.

Barack Obama and the environment

ONLY MONTHS into his presidency, there are troubling signs that Barack Obama is retreating from his commitment to real change on environmental issues.

From the question of climate change and greenhouse gas emissions, to the new concerns of a global pandemic from a strain of swine flu, it's clear that swift action is needed on all kinds of issues, especially from the U.S. government--the biggest producer of greenhouse gas emissions relative to population size and the country with the greatest resources to meet such challenges.

And compared to George W. Bush (who denied that global warming existed for most of his presidency), and John McCain and Sarah Palin (with their "drill, baby drill" campaign chants), Obama seems like a breath of fresh air.

Obama actually talked about global warming and environmental issues during the campaign, and in his victory speech on election night, he acknowledged that one of the reasons people voted for him was because of "a planet in peril." It's no wonder why millions of people saw Obama as the candidate of choice on environmental issues in the November election.

But the steps the new administration has taken so far, while welcome, are nowhere close to what's needed to meet the challenges.

Worse, Obama is adopting the most moderate possible policy--such as the so-called "cap and trade" approach to curbing greenhouse emissions--on many environmental issues. And on others--for example, the "clean coal" fraud--he has embraced the propaganda of the energy companies.

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EVIDENCE IS mounting that climate change and other environmental crises are looming, and that immediate--and drastic--action is needed to mitigate the effects.

According to a 2007 report by the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), a body consisting of more than 2,500 of the world's leading climate scientists, global warming is "unequivocal." According to the report, 11 of the previous 12 years ranked among the 12 hottest globally since 1850, when sufficient worldwide temperature measurements began.

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There is evidence already of increasingly severe weather patterns in everything from the increase in the intensity of hurricanes in the North Atlantic over the past 30 years; to drier conditions in the Sahel (the boundary zone between the Sahara Desert and more fertile regions of Africa to the south), the Mediterranean, southern Africa and parts of southern Asia since 1900.

Worldwide, droughts have become longer and more intense since 1970. The latest case in point: the Australian drought, which contributed to devastating wildfires that killed more than 200 in February.

Glacier mass and snow cover have declined, as has ice in the Arctic and Antarctic Seas. Ocean temperatures and sea levels have risen. Warming and related changes in monsoon and trade winds have triggered a retreat of Himalayan glaciers. Given their current rate of shrinkage, the conservative estimate is that Himalayan glaciers--the largest source of freshwater for northern India--could be gone by the year 2035.

Global biodiversity is already showing signs of being severely impacted, and an increase in global temperature of just 2 degrees Fahrenheit will, according to the IPCC, mean up to 30 percent of species of plants and animals are at risk of extinction.

Likewise, with climate change comes an increased risk of epidemics of infectious disease, as human populations are forced into increasingly unsanitary living conditions.

As author and activist Mike Davis noted in an article last year, not everyone will be affected equally. Instead, it will be the poorest who suffer first and most:

[G]lobal warming is not War of the Worlds, where invading Martians are dedicated to annihilating all of humanity without distinction. Climate change, instead, will initially produce dramatically unequal impacts across regions and social classes. It will reinforce, not diminish, geopolitical inequality and conflict.

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THIS IS the scale of the crisis that the Obama administration is expected to contend with. According to a Gallup poll published last week, 79 percent of Americans--including 65 percent of Republicans and 95 percent of Democrats surveyed--think that Obama will do a good job handling environmental issues, compared to the 51 percent that George W. Bush received eight years ago at the start of his presidency.

There have been some positive actions that Obama has taken on environmental issues in his first 100 days in office. For example, as one of his first acts in office in January, he signed presidential memoranda that set new fuel efficiency standards for cars, and that direct the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to immediately review the Bush administration's denial of a California waiver request that would allow the state to impose tougher restrictions on greenhouse gas emissions.

In addition, earlier this month, the EPA formally declared carbon dioxide and five other heat-trapping gases that cause global warming to be pollutants that endanger public health and welfare--opening the door to regulation under the Clean Air Act.

According to EPA Administrator Lisa P. Jackson, "This finding confirms that greenhouse gas pollution is a serious problem now and for future generations. Fortunately, it follows President Obama's call for a low-carbon economy and strong leadership in Congress on clean energy and climate legislation."

At the same time, however, Obama's team has taken pains to dial back expectations about what he will actually deliver when it comes to environmental change. As an article in the New York Times this month reported:

President Obama came to office promising swift and comprehensive action to combat global climate change, and the topic remains a surefire applause line in his speeches here and abroad.

Yet the administration has taken a cautious and rather passive role on the issue, proclaiming broad goals while remaining aloof from details of climate legislation now in Congress.

The president's budget initially included roughly $650 billion in revenue over 10 years from a cap-and-trade emissions plan that he wants adopted. But the administration, while insisting that its health care initiative be protected, did not fight to keep cap-and-trade in the budget resolutions that Congress passed last week, and it wound up in neither the House's version nor the Senate's.

In fact, "cap and trade"--the idea of capping greenhouse-gas emissions, but allowing companies to trade the "right" to pollute with one another--is not, by any stretch of the imagination, a radical step. In fact, it is one of the least radical proposals for curbing greenhouse gas emissions.

At best, it might create some financial incentives for polluters to curb their own emissions. At worst, according to some environmentalists, it legitimizes pollution by turning carbon emissions into commodities that can be bought and sold, and removes the stigma from producing such emissions.

Yet the Obama administration--under pressure from the right, which labels cap-and-trade, as well as any other new emissions standards as an unfair "tax" on corporations--has stepped back from taking action on even this largely symbolic action.

Even where the EPA ruling on greenhouse gases as a public health hazard is concerned, there are signs that real action on curbing emissions is far down the road. As the Times reported:

[T]he agency's regulations would take months to write and years to become fully effective. Meanwhile, Congress is already starting work on energy and climate legislation, though without significant guidance from the White House, at least in public.

Carol M. Browner, the White House coordinator of energy and climate policy, issued a surprisingly bland statement last week when two top House Democrats unveiled a far-reaching plan to cap greenhouse gases and move the nation toward an economy less dependent on carbon-rich fuels like coal and oil.

Ms. Browner stopped short of endorsing that plan, issued by Representatives Henry A. Waxman of California and Edward J. Markey of Massachusetts, saying instead that Mr. Obama "looks forward to working with members of Congress in both chambers to pass a bill that would transition the nation to a clean-energy economy." She gave little clue as to what she and the president believe such a measure should say.

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THEN THERE is Obama's willingness to support "solutions" to curbing pollution that rest on dubious science. On the campaign trail, for example, Obama was explicit about his willingness to support "safe" nuclear energy and "clean coal."

There's one problem, however: There is no such thing as "safe" nuclear energy or "clean coal."

The "clean coal" technology trumpeted by industry, for example, wouldn't be in place until 2020 at the earliest in the U.S.--thus, coal companies would be allowed to pollute at current levels for years. Despite this, Obama has proposed $3.4 billion in stimulus legislation to fund continued research on "clean coal" projects--essentially, a giveaway to the industry.

The coal industry has been running a multibillion-dollar ad campaign using one of Obama's campaign speeches to push the idea that coal can be "clean." "You can't tell me we can't figure out a way to burn coal that we mine right here in the United States and make it work," says Obama in the commercial, which ends with on-screen words: Yes We Can.

As for nuclear power, Obama's record is mixed. As a state senator in Illinois, for example, Obama softened a bill he originally put forward that would have required energy companies to promptly disclose radioactive leaks at nuclear plants.

The company in question, Exelon, had failed to disclosed radioactive leaks at one of its plants in Will County, Ill. Since 2003, according to the New York Times, employees of Exelon donated more than $227,000 to Obama's various campaigns.

Obama has also been a big supporter of ethanol, a biofuel derived from corn. Biofuels are supposedly better for the environment than fossil fuels because they're made from renewable resources. But biofuels as currently made in the U.S. are doing great things for agricultural giants like Archer Daniels Midland and Cargill, and very little for the environment.

This is particularly true of ethanol--because the corn used to make it requires large doses of herbicide and nitrogen fertilizer, and can cause more soil erosion than any other crop. Producing corn ethanol, in fact, consumes just about as much fossil fuel as the ethanol itself replaces--if not more, according to some studies.

Nevertheless, huge amounts of land and corn crops are now being diverted to ethanol production, driving up corn prices (and, in turn, prices on feed, livestock and food) and actually in many instances creating more pollution.

Yet Barack Obama remains a staunch supporter of ethanol subsidies. According to Obama economic policy director Jason Furman, Obama's commitment to biofuels is based primarily on "what's best for the country." But asked about his support for ethanol while on the campaign trail in April, Obama was more candid. "Look," he said. "I've been a strong ethanol supporter because a major corn producer."

It's not that Obama is significantly worse most other politicians. This is simply the political reality that exists behind a lot of decisions made in Washington.

Unfortunately, so far, many environmental groups appear reluctant to criticize the Obama administration's slow pace on a critical issue. "The administration's caution leaves many environmental advocates frustrated, although most are reluctant to speak on the record for fear of alienating their allies inside government," the Times reported.

We can't afford to wait and hope the Obama administration takes a tougher stand. We have to raise our voices now.