Barack Obama was green when he entered the Oval Office. He was a relative newcomer to politics. He was also the most successful fundraiser in presidential history, hauling in more green than the two Democratic and Republican candidates in 2004 combined. And he was, more or less, an environmentalist.
Back in 2004, Amanda Little dug around in Obama's past and declared in Grist magazine that he was a "bona fide, card-carrying, bleeding-heart greenie" going back to his days as an undergrad "trying to convince minority students at City College in Harlem to recycle," and then as a community organizer in Chicago fighting for lead abatement in the Altgeld Gardens neighborhood. As the junior senator from Illinois, Obama got high marks from the League of Conservation Voters for his introduction or co-sponsorship of 100 environment-friendly bills from mercury reduction to raising fuel economy standards on cars.
Running for president, Obama promised to paint the town green. He proclaimed his "intergenerational" perspective, his recognition that "we are borrowing this planet from our children and our grandchildren." After years of supporting the coal industry back in Illinois, he turned around to identify climate change as "one of the greatest moral challenges of our generation" and supported cutting carbon emissions 80 percent by 2050. He put sustainable energy policy at the center of his economic renewal, pledging to derive one-quarter of all U.S. energy from renewables by 2025 and to improve the efficiency of federal buildings and all new construction. There would also be tighter regulations on emissions and a much greater commitment to conservation. These promises also had a price tag: $150 billion alone for renewable energy investments.
Obama did indeed keep some of these promises. Dealing with the enormous economic crisis gifted to him by his predecessor, Obama emphasized green jobs in his stimulus package, with $78 billion in clean energy investment and $500 million specifically for job training around energy efficiency. He boosted funding for the Environmental Protection Agency, put more money into the national park system, and worked to improve water quality standards. In July, the administration brokered a major deal with auto manufacturers and environmentalists to raise the fuel economy standard, saving consumers money at the pump and reducing carbon emissions. On some of the big issues, like climate change legislation, the president came up against considerable congressional opposition. Given the flaws of the cap-and-trade mechanism at the core of this legislative initiative, which would have established a dubious market in carbon credits, it was a bittersweet failure.
This record would suggest a president who desperately wants to be Mr. Green but faces the dual political challenge of climate change skeptics and pollution industry lobbyists. You might fault him for his backbone but surely not his heart. Here was a politician who'd seen the (green) light.
But recent moves by Obama suggest a different interpretation of his environmental record.
In early September, the administration backed away from stronger air pollution standards, specifically on ozone, which essentially guarantees more smog. Obama decided to wait until 2013 to reevaluate the lax standards set by the Bush administration. It was, literally, a killer decision. On the House floor, Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) said that those opposed to the stricter standards would be responsible for 34,000 deaths by 2013. Politifact did the research and discovered that his accusation was mostly right (the range of estimated deaths from asthma, heart attack, and other ailments, according to the EPA, is 13,000 to 34,000).
The disappointment over the ozone decision has been overshadowed by the controversy over the Keystone XL oil pipeline, a nasty piece of work that would start in the tar sands of Alberta and run like an accident-waiting-to-happen through farmland and aquifers on its way to Texas. Squeezing oil out of the tar sands of Canada, meanwhile, is an environmental nightmare and generates three times the greenhouse gas emissions of conventional crude production. No one wants another war for oil – well, almost no one – but this isn't the only alternative.
Protestors converged on Washington, DC at the end of August to demand that Obama stop Keystone XL. There was the ubiquitous activist Bill McKibben, several high-wattage celebrities, a couple of my IPS colleagues, and even a very disillusioned former administration official. The president said that the State Department had the ultimate say over the project (the same State Department that allowed TransCanada, the company that would build the pipeline, to choose who would conduct the environmental impact assessment). Obama could exercise his presidential prerogative and nix the project. He shows no sign of doing so – yet.
In the case of ozone and tar sands, the president has shown his desperation. With only a little more than a year before the next presidential election, the unemployment rate remains stuck a notch above 9 percent. The president knows that his political fortunes – as well as those of his party – depend almost exclusively on the state of the U.S. economy.
After all, Obama has managed to shore up his foreign policy vulnerability by killing Osama bin Laden (to satisfy the right), orchestrating the downfall of Gaddafi (to impress the liberal interventionists), and more or less following through on his promise to withdraw U.S. troops from Iraq (to placate the peace movement). He has shifted into populist overdrive by touting a jobs bill and half-embracing the Occupy Wall Street movement, all to distinguish himself from his plutocrat opponents and win back disgruntled progressives. The Republicans are very capable of shooting themselves in the foot by nominating a wacko or by somehow failing to unite the traditionalists and tea partyists. But the Dems can't count on either of these contingencies.
So Obama is making a devil's bargain over jobs. It's not the first time, of course. He expanded oil and gas drilling, from Alaska to the Atlantic seaboard, and he opened up more public land for coal mining. But these latest decisions put the president at greater risk of losing both an activist base and the ever mercurial swing voters. Environmentalists form a much bigger voting bloc than the peace movement or trade unionists: over 60 percent of Americans, according to a 2010 Gallup poll, support the environmental movement.
But in his effort to grow the economy, Obama has allowed the Republican Party to label any and all government regulation as "job-destroying." And he's a few short weeks away from okaying a pipeline project that its advocates claim will create 20,000 jobs (critics point out that the pipeline wouldn't create anywhere near that many jobs and certainly not as many as a comparable investment in the green economy). The same preoccupation with jobs led to Obama's recent about-face on the free trade agreements – with South Korea, Panama, and Colombia – that he expressed so much skepticism about in Congress.
The real problem is not with Obama but with politics in general. The environment doesn't obey four-year cycles. Global warming could care less about democracy. And, in turn, snail darters and polar bears don't vote. Politicians who seek reelection want jobs now, not potential jobs, not future jobs, not if-everything-works-out-according-to-this-alternate-calculation jobs. Obama did invest in the new green economy, and that investment hasn't yet produced the 500,000 new jobs a year that he promised. And, because of the rush to produce results, the administration got sucked into a scandal involving the solar manufacturer Solyndra, which involved pumping money into a dying firm.
Ideally, our elected representatives would acknowledge that environmental issues should rise above politics, that the fate of the world should not be held hostage to lobbyists and election cycles. We have to take the long view. Of course we need jobs, and we need them sooner, not later. But the only job we create when we imperil the environment is the job of gravedigger. And when the grave you're digging is your own, there's certainly no future in that profession.