Al Gore’s Rolling Stone critique of President Obama’s failure to act on the climate crisis is further evidence of environmentalists’ broad frustration with this administration. Gore now joins former Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt as yet another former Clinton administration official whose dismay at Obama’s undermining of climate legislation, oil-industry cheerleading, enormous expansion of coal mining for export to China, and capitulations on public lands issues have overcome their innate reluctance to criticize a Democratic president and risk ostracism from the Beltway establishment. This increased boldness follows a major evolution in the environmental movement itself: Driven by grassroots frustration, major environmental organizations have learned to shed their fear of standing up to the White House and have even gotten results from doing so.

Of course, the White House is still betting that despite their carping, environmentalists have nowhere to go: No matter how much Obama concedes to the oil and coal industries, or how many times the White House rebuffs environmentalists on important symbolic issues like solar panels on the White House, or how many times they push off clean air regulations, the Republican presidential nomineee is bound to be worse. This dynamic was on display last night when I debated the Center for American Progress’ Dan Weiss (defending the administration) and the American Enterprise Institute’s Ken Green (defending polluters) on PBS News Hour, moderated by Gwen Ifill:

As the debate reflects, environmentalists are torn. As great as our disappointment with Obama is, we have seen the House Republicans and we are afraid: This is a group of people for whom proving their “true conservatism” apparently involves a competition to see who can repeal more laws that protect children from poisoning and wildlife from extinction.

But will the Republicans’ presidential nominee really have any similarity to a Tea Party Republican? Certainly, it’s possible that a climate-denying, EPA-repealing extremist like Michele Bachmann could turn the Republican primary into a clownish right-wing race to the bottom. But we shouldn’t forget that Republican primary voters want to win, usually choose establishment-backed candidates, and, like all Americans, have deep concerns about the economy. That could hand the nomination to someone like Mitt Romney or (less likely) Jon Huntsman — people who are building their campaign not around fealty to an agenda contrived by the far right, but around the notion that they are best positioned to put America back to work.

Indeed, it’s notable that Al Gore (sort of) praised Romney just a week ago for “sticking to his guns in the face of the anti-science wing of the Republican Party.” And Romney has left himself room for climate action — endorsing a transition to clean energy, but ruling out international agreements that don’t require emerging countries like China to take action as well, exactly the position of the Obama administration. Of course, Romney’s record is very mixed. Despite early support, he yanked Massachusetts from the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative to slash carbon pollution. And he supports crazy schemes like drilling for oil even on our most ecologically sensitive public lands like the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Nonetheless, he also supported large-scale clean energy investment — and that might be enough to convince voters that he’s at least as green as Obama given Obama’s very mixed record.

More broadly, Obama’s failure to create large investments in the green economy will severely damage him at the ballot box: Clean energy and ecological restoration create more than twice as many jobs as investments in coal, oil, and nuclear. Every time Obama tries to buy off the oil or coal industry with a new concession or delay of an EPA regulation, he is not only putting more money into the hands of industries broadly committed to his defeat, but he’s also wasting billions on ineffective job-creation strategies in established, polluting industries. Case in point: News today that European consortium Airbus just trounced Boeing at the Paris Air Show, landing orders for $72 billion worth of new aircraft, compared to Boeing’s $22 billion. According to the Associated Press, the European planes won the global competition because of “airlines’ desire to reduce sky-high fuel costs and cut their carbon dioxide emissions.” That’s $50 billion worth of jobs not going to the United States because of our failure to win the race for efficiency and clean energy. This is not winning the future. 

 

This type of frustration is going to be deeply felt not just by environmentalists, but other parts of a Democratic coalition already frustrated with Obama’s unwillingness or inability to stand up to corporations and force them to do better, or already angry that he would cut taxes for the ultra-rich while education is being slashed.

All in all, Obama’s failures have put the Democratic Party, the country, and the planet in a very risky, high-stakes position for 2012 and beyond. Al Gore is once again issuing the national call to action we need to rescue ourselves from this mess.  It’s now up to President Obama to act on it — and environmentalists to keep up the pressure to make sure that he does.