When speaking of the most vocal proponents for addressing environmental issues in the development of social policy, the minds of Americans frequently turn to the likes of Al Gore, who reclaimed publicity for his pet issue of global warming in 2006 with the documentary An Inconvenient Truth, or frequent Presidential candidate Ralph Nader, who is strongly identified with political activism in favor of the protection and conservation of natural resources and his association with the Green Party. However, these politicians have for the most part, waged a largely uphill battle in getting their advocacies recognized by incumbent political leaders, despite the important positions that they have acquired throughout their careers.
Still, not all hope has been lost for the environmental cause. With the political zeitgeist having largely rejected many of the pet issues of the Republican party, such as free market fiscal policies, social conservatism and the importance of national defense, the tide has turned to such an extent that the Democratic party has seized the reins of both Congress and the Presidency. This is not to connote a moral triumph of one party over another, but rather indicate the change in the political climate, one that returns it to many of the pet issues that had fallen into disfavor after the departure of the Clinton administration. In any case, the rise of Barack Obama to the Presidency following dissatisfaction with foreign policy and an increasing concern with matters of environment and the economy means that the former Senator of Illinois maybe the best chance that the environmental agenda has had in a long time.
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Obama has frequently made the issues of climate change and energy futures as two of his more vocal policy concerns in his campaign for the Presidency. In addition to having maintained a reputation in his career in the Senate for supporting environmentally friendly bills, Obama worked as a member of the U.S. Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works during the 109th Congress. (Obama, 2007) That said, one of the cornerstone assertions for Obama’s environmental policy is the necessity of relinquishing dependence on fossil fuels in order to avoid detrimental climatological conditions. To this end, he has pledged to initiate a market-based cap-and-trade system that will bring the greenhouse gas emissions of the United States down to 20% of 1990 levels by the year 2050 as well as improving air and water quality by reducing carbon emissions. (Obama, 2006; Obama, 2007)
The League of Conservation Voters, an environmentally oriented lobbying group, observed in their 2007 environmental scorecard that Obama has made pro-environment votes on a significant majority of congressional resolutions that were examined, and graded him a score of 86. Obama had absented himself in four out of the fifteen resolutions examined by the scorecard. (LCV, 2008). Obama was named a 2004 Environmental Champion by the League of Conservation Voters, and received endorsement from the environmental organization the Sierra Club. (Griscom, 2006) While he has not made a career out of being an environmental policy wonk like former Vice President Al Gore has, he frequently articulates the relevance of environmental protectionism to concerns regarding domestic security and economic growth. Griscom (2006) reports that part of the reason behind Obama’s consistency in matters pertaining to the environment owe primarily to a ‘personal component’: He has a daughter with chronic asthma, which explains the amount of attention he has given to air quality controls in his home state of Illinois. As further indication of this commitment, during the election race he dismissed the proposal made by opposing candidates John McCain and Hilary Rodham Clinton to suspend federal gas taxes temporarily in order to alleviate the burden of rising prices on consumers. Obama declared the gas tax an act of political pandering “designed to get them through an election” rather than actually help the consumers in the long run. He further charged that the gas tax, as proposed, would negatively impact federal funding for highway infrastructure and related construction jobs. (MSNBC News, 2008a; 2008b)
What most exemplifies Obama’s approach to the environment is covered by the broad range of related proposals that was aggregated under his campaign site under the platform banner of “New Energy for America,” which also presents numerous policy proposals pertinent to matters related to energy policy for the nation. The proposals include, but are not limited to: of the use of oil company windfall profits to provide direct relief to Americans as energy rebates, a crack down on the speculation of energy futures, and the use of the Strategic Petroleum Reserve to bring down prices at the pump. Furthermore, Obama wants to create green jobs by developing industries and technologies that will create a national clean energy economy. Additionally, Obama is on record for his consistent endorsement of increased fuel economy standards and has called on automobile manufacturers more than once to adopt the technologies necessary to meet such standards. This includes the advancement of vehicular technology such as plug-in hybrid/flexible fuel engine technology, increased focus on research & development of battery technology and sustainable biofuels, providing tax credits for the purchase of advanced vehicles and the establishment of a National Low Carbon Fuel Standard to hasten the introduction of greener fuels, all with the goal of a greener automotive lifestyle. (Obama Biden ’08, 2008; Bunkley & Maynard, 2007)
However, Obama recognizes that the resolution of the energy crises plaguing America will not arrive due to ‘silver bullet solutions’ but through the diversification of energy sources. As such, a broad range of potential energy sources are under consideration for the energy future, ranging from the more contentious ones as clean coal and nuclear to those that have garnered broad approval from environmentalists, namely solar and wind. Furthermore, Obama believes in the necessity of weatherizing homes, as a means of addressing the skyrocketing energy costs of heating during winter. Furthermore, he is interested in seeing the development of a smart electrical grid that would more intelligently distribute power to homes and ‘flip the incentives’ of energy utilities by inverting the profit model such that the profit model of the utility sector is based on the reliability and performance of such utilities in reducing energy consumption and thereby removing the link between profits and increased energy use. Additionally, Obama believes in the need to apply stricter energy efficiency standards to appliance technology and building construction and the development of sustainable communities that address the obsolete community designs which center upon the automobile and an assumption of cheap oil. This means devoting more attention towards highway infrastructure and ‘investments that will make it easier for us to walk, bicycle and access other transportation alternatives,’ though Obama is a bit vague in this matter, as all his platform outlines is a commitment to reforming the federal transportation funding and crafting employer incentives for the use of public transit without any clear strategy.
Furthermore, Obama has made emissions trading, a recent hot button topic in matters of environmental policy, into a core part of his environmental and energy agenda. His strongest opponent in the Presidential race, John McCain also expressed a similar belief in the value of emissions trading, but their targets differed. For McCain, the target was to reduce emissions towards a 60 per cent drop below 1990 levels by the year 2050, with the short-term goal of reaching 2005 levels by the year 2012. Obama proposed a more audacious goal of 80 per cent below 1990 levels. Lozanova (2008) reports that the rationale behind a cap and trade system, as articulated by McCain, is that it is a market-based approach to reduced carbon emissions that removes the need for government intervention in the form of tax credits and subsidies. Cap and trade systems work by creating a financial incentive for emission reduction through the imposition of costs on emissions. By establishing a ‘cap’ which limits the total amount of emissions that can be made by a designated group of polluters and leaving them free to trade permits to pollute with one another, it encourages these polluters to meet or fall below the cap in a flexible market-based fashion. Companies able to cut their emissions can further profit from selling their permits to those companies facing difficulty in reducing their own emissions. The incentive is that all the companies would choose to bring their emissions to cap levels and try to do so in the most cost-effective fashion. It encourages them to innovate the means to reduce emissions. However, cap-and-trade systems are particularly deficient in addressing matters of environmental justice. Komanoff (2008) reports that various environmental justice organizations have contended such systems as being “fraught with uncertainties, lack[ing] transparency and creat[ing] large opportunities for emitting facilities to engage in fraud.” This is because cap-and-trade systems are not designed to account for geography of polluters. As such, cap-and-trade systems could result in creating areas where the negative impact of pollution becomes direct and localized. The result is a NIMBY effect: in attempting to remediate climate change, cap-and-trade systems could create emissions ghettos. Roosevelt (2008) reports that low income community groups in California opposed cap-and-trade because of the difficulty in accounting for its proceeds that comes from its lack of transparency, and that it effectively allows polluters “to partly buy their way out of lowering their emissions.”
Nonetheless, the special attention which Obama gives to environmental issues is worth noticing, as he does not embrace these issues as part of some abstract moral agenda, but rather as cornerstones for an important reformation of many of the current dysfunctions in American industry, economy and security. Furthermore, the emphasis which Obama gives towards the United States potential role of leadership in matters of environmental issues is not to be ignored. As environmental journalist Alex Steffen (2006) notes, developing nations frequently look up to the United States, not for its cultural or social values, but for its level of economic prosperity, yet the model which has permitted its luxuries is largely unsustainable. It is wrong to think that it can or should talk these nations out of these aspirations. Thus, it will be necessary for the U.S. to set an example by recognizing that the Rostovian take off model which enabled it to achieve its present state of luxury is no longer desirable for other nations. Such nations seek to imitate the U.S. in an effort to enjoy a similar prosperity and it is only by setting an example that the U.S can encourage such nations to leapfrog to the bright green future.
Obama, B. (2007 July) “Energy and Environment.” Retrieved from Internet site, Barack Obama U.S. Senator for Illinois, at: http://obama.senate.gov/issues/environment/
Obama, B. (2006, April 3) “Energy Independence and the Safety of Our Planet.” Retrieved from Internet site, Barack Obama U.S. Senator for Illinois, at: http://obama.senate.gov/speech/060403-energy_independ/index.php
The League of Conservation Voters. (2008 February) “National Environmental Scorecard.” Retrieved April 24, 2009 from: http://lcv.org/scorecard/2007.pdf
MSNBC News. (2008a, May 4) “Obama, Clinton battle over Iran, gas tax holiday.” MSNBC News. Retrieved April 25, 2009 from: http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/24453785/
MSNBC News. (2008b, April 29) “Obama: Call for gas tax pure politics.” MSNBC News. Retrieved April 25, 2009 from: http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/24370169/
Griscom, A. (2004, August 4) “Barack Star.” Grist. Retrieved April 24, 2009 from: http://www.grist.org/news/muck/2004/08/04/griscom-obama/
Obama Biden ’08. (2008, August 4) “New Energy for America.” Retrieved April 25, 2009 from: http://www.barackobama.com/pdf/factsheet_energy_speech_080308.pdf
Bunkley, N. & Maynard, M. (2007, May 7) “Obama Criticizes Automakers on Fuel Economy.” The New York Times. Retrieved online on April 25, 2009 from: http://www.nytimes.com/2007/05/07/us/politics/07cnd-obama.html?_r=1&hp
Lozanova, S. (2008, July 1) “McCain and Obama’s Plan to Combat Climate Change.” Triple Pundit. Retrieved April 25, 2009 from: http://www.triplepundit.com/pages/mccain-and-obamas-plans-to-com-003294.php
Komanoff, C. (2008, May 13) “National ‘EJ’ Coalition Blasts Cap-and-Trade, Backs Carbon Tax.” Carbon Tax Center. Retrieved on April 24, 2009 from: http://www.carbontax.org/blogarchives/2008/06/13/national-%E2%80%9Cej%E2%80%9D-coalition-blasts-cap-and-trade-backs-carbon-tax/
Roosevelt, M. (2008, February 20) “Groups to fight plan for trading carbon emissions.” Los Angeles Times.
Steffen, A. (ed.) (2006) Worldchanging: A User’s Guide for the 21st Century. New York: Abrams.