Is Obama Delivering on Environmental Policy?

And what has been the role of grassrooots activism?

3 min read
Is Obama Delivering on Environmental Policy?

Strikingly different views of Obama's environmental record—and of environmental politics generally—have been appearing in the general press. At one extreme the president is portrayed as ineffectual because he lacks an activist base. At the other extreme are commentators who find him strikingly effective, the strength of grassroots activism being held as almost irrelevant.

Case in point: In a widely discussed article that appeared in The New Yorker in April, Nicholas Lemann bemoaned a drift toward inside-the-beltway bargaining on the part of  the top U.S. environmental organizations and their leaders, as compared to the glorious early days of the environmental movement when mass mobilization led to enactment of landmark clean air and water legislation. Lemann, a former dean of Columbia Journalism School and the author of well regarded books on a wide range of subjects, treated the failure of environmentalists to obtain a cap-and-trade carbon reduction bill as Exhibit A in what he considered their ineffectiveness as compared with forty years ago.

In a diametrically opposed assessment, journalist Jonathan Chait argued in a recent issue of New York magazine that environmental activism is less relevant today because it is less needed. By using a variety of regulatory authorities and instruments, notably the Environmental Protection Agency that Nixon created in response to grassroots pressure, Obama has been able to make himself in effect "the environmental president." Especially noteworthy in Chait's view have been the president's much more demanding long-term automotive fuel efficiency standards, the big boost given to clean and green tech by the 2009 stimulus bill, and plans in progress to regulate carbon under authority of the Clean Air Act and Amendments, as directed by a seminal U.S. Supreme Court decision.

Having argued here more than once that Obama has been pursuing a "stealth climate policy," I am somewhat more in sympathy with Chait's position than Lemann's. Lemann understates the extent of current environmental activism—he makes no mention of Bill McKibbon's or of the many local groups that have made it virtually impossible to build a new coal-fired plant in the United States—and he puts too much emphasis on the failed cap-and-trade bill. Chait, to be sure, does not always state or contextualize Obama's achievements quite rightly. He overstates the president's success in stimulating cuts in U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, which actually began under his predecessor (and so far are largely the effect of factors for which neither president should do much bragging, notably the overall economic slowdown), and he exaggerates the significance of the toothless carbon reduction pledge the United States and other countries made at the 2009 Copenhagen climate conference.

Indeed, Obama's promise to cut emissions 17 percent by 2020 is widely seen as drastically inadequate and certainly, Chait's paeans notwithstanding, is not "the brass ring of the environmental movement." Broadly speaking, environmental leaders and the climate science community consider much more aggressive action urgently needed.

A scathing critique of current U.S. and global climate commitments came earlier this year, compliments of science historians Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway, writing in the winter of issue Daedalus, the journal of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Taking what they call "a view from the future," Oreskes and Conway described how "the collapse of western civilization" began even as we speak. Their modus operandi was to proceed smoothly from seemingly implausible events like North's Carolina's 2012 Sea Level Rise Denial Bill and the 2010 heat wave and fires that killed an estimated 50 000 people in Russia to an enumeration of not yet occurred and yet all too plausible future events, among them: an unprecedented heat wave in summer 2041 that destroyed crops around the world, leading to "riots in virtually every major city"; the 2042 International Aerosol Injection Climate Engineering Project, which backfires badly; the appearance of the so-called Sagan feedback effect, which leads to an abrupt doubling of warming; the ensuing disintegration of the West Antarctica and Greenland ice sheets; and finally, with sharpy rising waters, the displacement of an estimated 1.5 billion people, and the disappearance of 60-70 percent of Earth's species. "The human populations of Australia and Africa, or course, were wiped out."

One thing Lemann, Chait and the rest of us can probably agree on is this: In his first term, Obama aggressively used his executive authority to discourage greenhouse gas emissions, without talking about it. This year, with the first State of the Union Address of his second term, he is saying he will continue to use that executive authority, making no bones about it. The real issue is whether that is enough.

Photo: Volkswagen's XL1. Credit: Volkswagen

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