Obama: the post-environmental president

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.

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