Photo: The White HouseI confess that when I initially heard of it, I thought Bill McKibben’s drive to return solar panels to the White House was essentially a waste of time: of all the things to ask the president, it seemed like the smallest, most insignificant, and easiest. It certainly wouldn’t solve the climate crisis. And it would allow President Obama to cloak himself in a symbolic green action that let him cover a rapidly worsening environmental record.
I realize now that its very simplicity made the solar panels a masterstroke that clearly exposed, more than any big policy ask ever would, President Obama’s unwillingness or inability to confront our great planetary crisis. Because even in this smallest of disappointments, Obama responded in a way that was a caricature of his failure-by-committee administration: sending mid-level officials to tell the greatest American environmental activist of our time that the president was rejecting their request out of hand in favor of a continued “deliberative process.” Huh? It’s a solar panel, not the Afghanistan war strategy. Politico, in the course of its daily “mind-meld” with top White House officials, probably captured the truth behind the White House’s craven response when they wrote that “the White House won’t like the symbolism” of anything associated with Jimmy Carter.
Of course, rejecting the solar panels, taken alone, is no reason to pass judgment on the entire administration. But this cowardly act came on the same day that the administration rolled out the latest plank in a growing legal assault on independent actions to fight climate change. On the ninth, the administration filed papers with the United Nations to try and prevent Europe from instituting pollution control measures on U.S. airlines’ flights that take off or land in Europe. And just two weeks earlier, the Obama administration “appalled” environmentalists by intervening — on the side of polluters — in a lawsuit in which eight states and New York City are suing major Midwestern utilities to force them to clean up their carbon pollution (and doing so in a particularly egregious way, as outlined by Jonathan Zasloff of Legal Planet).
These aren’t the first times the Obama administration has weighed in for polluters — they’ve also worked to stop environmentalists from using the Endangered Species Act to force polluters to clean up — even though climate pollution is melting the sea ice that species like polar bears depend on for survival and imperiling more than a third of all species on Earth. Perhaps most tragically, they issued BP special permits exempting the Macondo well from several environmental laws — and then assented to a sweetheart deal with BP that made BP’s compensation of people affected by the oil spill dependent on continued unsafe drilling in the Gulf.
To put the administration’s actions in context, it’s important to consider the seven major ways that progress has been made around the world against climate change: 1) Pollution caps instituted by Europe, Japan, and other Kyoto Protocol signatories 2) State-level action such as pollution caps in California and northeastern states, as well as state-level Renewable Energy Standards 3) Entrepreneurism and private investment 4) Voluntary actions by businesses to reduce pollution 5) Activism to pressure corporations, educational institutions, local governments, and other institutions to adopt climate-friendly measures 6) Lawsuits 7) Personal lifestyle changes.
Now the administration is actively working to undermine at least three of these seven pillars by fighting state efforts, publicly rejecting activist efforts such as the solar panel drive, and even going so far as meddling in efforts of other countries to tackle climate change.
Like many environmentalists, I’ve long criticized President Obama for not doing enough to protect the planet — but now I fear that he is not only not doing enough, he is actively going out of his way to fight climate action on many fronts. It’s sad to say it, but he seems to prize the possibility of an unholy and illusory accommodation with polluters over a solution to the great environmental crisis that confronts us.
But, the White House responds, “We’re better than Bush!” Which is like a six-year-old bragging that he runs faster than a four-year-old. In particular, the administration responds by touting the $70 to $80 billion it included in the Recovery Act for efficiency, clean energy, and other pro-environment programs as well as their efforts to limit pollution by using the Clean Air Act. While these actions are indeed steps in the right direction, let’s keep them in perspective: relative to the stimulus packages introduced in other major economies, Obama’s proposal was lower-middle of the pack in terms of its amount of green investment, with just 12 percent of the Recovery Act going to green proposals, according to an analysis by The Financial Times. Although that beats out Japan, Canada, and the U.K., we’re lagging far behind countries like Australia (21 percent), China (34 percent), the E.U. (64 percent), and South Korea’s visionary 79 percent. In 2010, countries around the world know that green investments generate more jobs bang for the investment buck than traditional stimulus activities. The president’s modest investment is hardly worthy of the self-praise the White House showers itself in when touting its green record.
As for the Clean Air Act, we should remember that the Supreme Court effectively mandated regulation of greenhouse gases in its landmark 2007 case Massachusetts vs. EPA. To be sure, the administration has moved faster than their predecessors, but don’t get too excited. A White House official told Politico that the administration is hoping to merely achieve modest gains with modest regulations. These regulations, on the one hand, are not going to solve the entire global warming problem. On the other, they won’t be incredibly intrusive and blunderbuss. They’ll be the modest steps that EPA is authorized by the existing Clean Air Act to take.
World Resources Institute has estimated that a combination of EPA regulation and state initiatives could reduce pollution 6 to 14 percent by 2020, depending on how ambitious those actions are. Obama’s “modest gains” and his interferenc
e with state action seem to be putting our nation firmly at the failing end of that spectrum.
Lest we think that Obama’s reluctance to fight for the environment is somehow specific to a certain apathy about the fate of the planet or a belief that green issues aren’t winning ones, let us remember that this pattern of betrayal of his promises of change cuts across his entire agenda. This is a president who speaks the language of equality — and then has his administration energetically fight lawsuits asking that gays and lesbians be allowed to serve in the military while booting gay Arabic linguists from the Army. This is a president who spoke passionately about the need to put Americans back to work — and then larded his Recovery Act with marginally-stimulative tax cuts that were geared more towards creating Beltway harmony than restoring the American economy. And let’s not forget Obama’s signature accomplishment, health care. The president spoke movingly about the need to provide Americans with affordable, effective health care by forcing insurance companies to compete with a public option and then refused to even lobby senators for a public option. He promised to bring drug prices under a control and then, as part of a private, backroom deal with drug companies, agreed to oppose Congressional efforts to rein in out-of-control drug costs in exchange for an agreement to cut costs by “up to, but not more than $80 billion” (an agreement that drug companies soon set about undermining by raising prices before health care reform was instituted). The sad truth is that President Obama has a pattern of sacrificing real results on the altar of “bringing people together” — even if the people he’s bringing together are nihilist Republicans and oil company lobbyists.
So what to do? As enthralled as environmentalists and progressives once were about Obama’s promise, we cannot ignore that for all his fine rhetoric, his accomodationism and reserve are allowing the planetary crisis to deteriorate and leaving America behind in the race for a clean energy economy. It pains me to say it, but success will require a new president — and that means that after the midterm elections, we need to start looking for a primary challenger who has the heart and soul required to save the planet from catastrophe and rescue America from its economic morass — even as we throw ourselves into grassroots action to do what we can to save the planet despite the president’s interference.
Of course, there’s always an outside shot that President Obama himself could be that new president, that the threat of Tea Party takeover could prompt him to reevaluate his failed political strategy and inadequate policies and embrace courage, principle, and steely resolve. This new Obama could reverse course, welcoming and driving the green economy from the ground up — and using all the powers available to him to crack down on pollution and induce a Republican congress to offer politically feasible, climate friendly measures like broad tax credits for forest protection and clean energy investment. Indeed, just the real prospect of a credible progressive primary challenger would likely move Obama toward a more principled and effective position. There’s still a sliver of time before the race for 2012 starts in earnest — time in which Obama could finally deliver for the planet and the country. But unless he does, environmentalists won’t be able to wait forever for the green, courageous, and winning leader the Earth so desperately needs.