Obama's Post-Environmental Moment
A little more than four years after we started a debate about the future of environmentalism, President Obama has largely ended it. In his State of the Union address, Obama called for the most far-reaching program ever proposed by an American president to remake America's energy economy -- with hardly a mention of the environment.
In our 2004 essay, "The Death of Environmentalism," we argued that global warming was an unprecedented ecological challenge that would lead to the death of environmentalism. What we meant was that the environmental movement, as America had known it for the better part of four decades, would be forced to reconsider the central role that environmental protection and nature preservation played in its politics and policy proposals.
Reaction from many environmentalists was swift and harsh. Yet, today, environmental organizations have largely relegated images of polar bears and melting ice flows to the back pages of their magazines. Green jobs and clean energy investment are the eco-ideas of the moment.
This new post-environmental politics is only beginning to reveal itself and, like any revolution, will continue to advance in fits and starts. Along with the rhetorical shift that has already occurred, there is an important policy shift that is just beginning to take shape. Just a year or two ago, most advocates for climate change action viewed carbon caps and carbon trading as the central front in the effort to reduce emissions. And while green groups and President Obama are still overly reliant on these strategies, there is a growing acknowledgement that carbon regulations and carbon pricing alone will not be sufficient to achieve the goal of deep reductions in global carbon emissions.
This consensus has emerged as evidence has mounted that similar policies have failed to either reduce carbon emissions or create a thriving clean energy economy in the European Union.
Today a growing number of energy scientists, economists and even environmentalists have recognized that only enormous public investments in research, development and deployment of clean energy technologies (several times larger than the $15 billion in annual investments that President Obama has proposed) will bring us the cheap and scalable clean energy technologies that we need.
Such an approach will not be cheap. The best estimates of how much the United States needs to spend annually on research, development and deployment of clean energy technologies in order to drive down their costs so they are a cost-effective alternative to fossil-fuel based energy is somewhere between $50 billion and $80 billion.
It was never realistic to have expected pollution regulations and carbon taxes to drive a global energy modernization project of the scale necessary to transform the global energy economy. We did not invent the personal computer by placing a "market-based cap" on typewriters nor create the Internet by taxing telegraphs and fax machines. To the contrary, government investment was largely responsible for bringing these revolutionary technologies, and a raft of others, into our lives. This included not only funding research and development at universities and national laboratories but also directly procuring and deploying cutting-edge technologies that were not yet ready for broad commercialization.
In the coming years, as recognition of the failure of carbon regulation and pricing to make much progress toward reducing global carbon emissions becomes ever more apparent, advocates for climate action, including environmentalists, will increasingly embrace a technology-and-investment centered framework. For as surely as the politics of climate and energy has forced environmentalists to abandon their nature-based rhetoric, the economic and technological challenges inherent to the climate crisis will ultimately force them to abandon their pollution-focused remedies.
Let us hope that President Obama is quick to recognize this reality and moves quickly to make a commitment to invest in our clean energy future commensurate with the scale of the transformation we must make.
© 2009 The San Francisco Chronicle