Obama raises hopes for tackling the eco crunch

Posted: 5 November 2008

The election of Barack Obama as President elect of the United States has raised hopes among environmentalists that a new impetus will be given to global efforts to combat climate change and address the wider issues of a sustainable future for all life on our planet. Here we give some early reactions to Obama's election victory and list some of promises that Barack Obama has already made.

Barack Obama
Barack Obama
President-elect Barack Obama. Photo © www.cutyourfootprint.com
Climate change must be a major priority for the US President-elect, Friends of the Earth said today. Executive director Andy Atkins said: “Tackling climate change must be the number one priority for Barack Obama - creating new green businesses and millions of green-collar jobs will help lead America, and the world, out of recession to a safer and more prosperous future.

“Hopefully Mr Obama’s victory will give crucial international climate negotiations in Copenhagen next year a much greater chance of success - the United States must face up to its international responsibilities and show positive global leadership in low carbon economic development.

“Kick-starting a green revolution based on energy efficiency and the development of clean and renewable energy makes obvious environmental sense, and offers our only hope of avoiding the catastrophic consequences of runaway climate change.”

Carter Roberts, CEO of US-based World Wildlife Fund (WWF), said: “Our climate is changing far more rapidly than scientists projected, making it imperative that our new President maintains his commitment to policies that will sharply reduce greenhouse gas pollution and help prepare for the impacts of climate change that the world is already experiencing.

Shallow excuses

"We hope the President-elect will also send a strong message to the international community that the US is now committed to working closely and cooperatively on this issue and intends to play a leadership role in the upcoming international climate talks in Poznan, Poland.

“The next administration must address climate change in the context of a broader environmental, economic, and social agenda. We can no longer continue to consume natural resources at a rate that far exceeds the Earth’s regenerative capacity and borrow from the ‘natural capital’ of future generations. We must take a green approach to rebuilding the economy, focusing efforts on developing new energy technologies and promoting energy efficiency. “We hope the Obama Administration will take under strong consideration the need to ensure food security, the availability of freshwater, the sustainable use of the world’s resources, and the creation of economic opportunity that ensures fairness for countries of all economic standing—policies described in detail in WWF’s ‘Greenprint’ for the next administration.

“For too long, the world has looked to the US for leadership on the climate crisis, only to be met with shallow excuses and indifference. With today’s historic election, we are optimistic that those days are behind us.”

Commenting from another perpective, Jon O'Brien, president of Catholics for Choice, said: "Initial results show that 54 per cent of the Catholic vote went to President-elect Barack Obama. This shows that the majority of Catholics voted their conscience when deciding who should be the next president, and ignored the single-issue dictates of a few bishops who declared that it was unacceptable to vote for him because of his prochoice position.

"The next administration will have to work hard to repair the damage done during the last eight years. Undoubtedly, concerns about America's economic security and military engagements overseas will garner a great deal of attention. However, the next administration and Congress must also work for advances in reproductive health care in the US and abroad

In a review of the environmental policies of the candidates, the US website Alternet said: "Across the globe, people are holding their breath to see whether the United States will finally join the rest of the world in trying to stop climate change."

So what, it asked, is Barack Obama's position, issue by issue, and what has he already done?

1. CLIMATE CHANGE

We face economic, humanitarian and environmental crises from unchecked global climate change, including the loss of important water sources that help quench the needs of our industry, agriculture and homes. Our coastal cities will also be threatened by rising sea levels, and the frequency and severity of storms are predicted to increase.

Solution: We need to pass a comprehensive bill on climate change to cut emissions 80 per cent below 1990 levels by 2050, as the world's leading scientists of the IPCC have prescribed.

Obama's position: Obama supported legislation to cut emissions 80 per cent below 1990 levels by 2050 and has a plan to achieve that through a market-based cap-and-trade system.

2. COAL

Coal-fired power plant, USA
Coal-fired power plant, USA
Electrical transmission lines in front of coal-fired power plant, USA. Photo © Warren Gretz/US National Renewable Energy Laboratory
Half of Americans get their energy from coal, but it is the dirtiest of our energy sources, and the extraction, cleaning and burning of it has caused major environmental and health problems.

Solution: We need to end our use of coal and instead use cleaner, renewable sources of energy. We should not be supporting "clean coal" technology or coal-to-liquids fuels because these do nothing to address the destructive practices of coal extraction, including mountaintop removal mining.

Obama's position: Obama has proposed investing $150 billion over 10 years in renewables, but this includes so-called "clean coal" technology. He also was the co-sponsor of the Coal-to-Liquid Fuel Promotion Act, which he later "clarified," saying he would only support liquefying coal if it emitted 20 per cent less carbon than conventional fuels.

3. RENEWABLE ENERGY

As we face dwindling supplies and increasing environmental harm from fossil fuels like oil and coal, not enough attention and resources are being directed toward developing and implementing renewable energy projects.

Solution: Cut our dependence on energy sources that cause carbon emissions and instead focus our resources on clean, renewable sources of energy such as wind, solar and geothermal.

Obama's position: Obama's plan would double federal research money for renewable energy, would aim to get 25 per cent of our electricity from clean sources by 2025 and would create a clean technology venture capital fund. Obama supported renewables in the Senate, making it back for a key vote.

4. BIOFUELS

Bioethanol plant
Bioethanol plant
Corn being unloaded from a railcar at an ethanol plant in Windsor, Colorado. The plant processes some 150 million litres of ethanol annually. Credit: NREL/Gerry Harrow
With the price of gas rising, many people are looking to biofuels, such as ethanol, as a replacement. But growing food for fuel has caused the price of commodities like corn to rise and has increased the use of water and pesticides, causing more environmental harm.

Solution: Explore the development of fuels that are created from waste products and other nonfood items.

Obama's position: Obama's plan calls for 36 billion gallons of biofuels to be used in the United States each year by 2022 and 60 billion gallons of biofuels to be used in the country each year by 2030.

5. ENERGY AND FUEL EFFICIENCY

While there is an increasing recognition that we need to decrease our dependence on foreign sources of energy, there has been little talk about how much money we can save and how much emissions we can cut by increasing efficiency.

Solution: Raise energy efficiency and fuel efficiency standards and help people save money by saving energy and lowering their carbon footprints.

Obama's position: Obama's plan has a goal of improving new building efficiency by 50 per cent and existing building efficiency by 25 per cent in the next 10 years and providing energy incentives for conservation. He voted yes on comprehensive energy legislation that included raising automobile fuel efficiency standards to 35 mpg by 2020.

6. WATER

We face a water crisis from global warming, pollution, scarcity and privatization. In the next 10 years, 36 US. states will be facing water scarcity. Municipalities are strapped for money to maintain and repair aging infrastructure as funding from the federal government has fallen 66 per cent since 1991. This has opened the door for the privatization of public water sources, causing rates to rise and services to diminish.

Solution: We need full funding from the federal government to protect and clean up water sources, stop the privatization of municipal water, and ensure adequate funding of our water infrastructure.

Obama's position: Obama voted for on an amendment that would include $900 million for flood management and pollution caused by runoff from roads. Obama supports full funding for the Clean Water State Revolving Fund, which helps states keep their water clean and safe.

7. OIL DRILLING

As Democrats and Republicans talk about solutions to rising gas prices and reducing our dependence on foreign oil, there has been renewed interest in offshore oil drilling and drilling in ecologically pristine areas like the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR).

Solution: New offshore permits and drilling in ANWR should be taken off the table, as they would do nothing to ease the strain of drivers struggling with rising prices.

Obama's position: In 2006, Obama rejected efforts to open up 8 million acres off the coasts of Florida, Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana for oil and gas drilling. He has also been against drilling in ANWR. However, this summer he said he would reconsider lifting the ban on offshore drilling if it were part of a larger energy bill.

8. AIR

Almost 40% of carbon dioxide emissionsin California comes from passenger vehicles.© US Environmental Protection Agency
Almost 40% of carbon dioxide emissionsin California comes from passenger vehicles.© US Environmental Protection Agency
Almost 40 per cent of carbon dioxide emissions in California comes from passenger vehicles.© US Environmental Protection Agency
Coal-burning power plants, vehicle emissions and other pollutants threaten air quality and health.

Solution: We need to phase out coal plants and strengthen the Clean Air Act to make sure corporations are accountable to the communities where they operate.

Obama's position: In the Senate, Obama helped to stop Bush's rollbacks on the Clean Air Act, which would have increased industrial emissions of mercury and sulfur. And he fought a Bush administration rule that would have delayed meaningful reductions in mercury emissions from power plants for 20 more years.

9. NUCLEAR ENERGY

As awareness about global warming has increased, the nuclear industry is trying to rebrand nuclear power as a clean, renewable source of energy.

Solution: Nuclear power is not a clean or safe form of energy and should not be given government subsidies.

Obama's position: Obama has said that he supports nuclear power if it is clean and safe, but he has not defined what it would take to make nuclear power and its waste clean and safe. He is against the storage of nuclear waste at Yucca Mountain and has not specifically called for building any nuclear power plants.

10. GREEN JOBS

The economy is tanking and global warming emissions continue to rise despite warnings from leading scientists about the threats of climate change. A green jobs programme could help tackle both of these problems at once, but action needs to come from the federal government to jump-start it.

Solution: We need a federal initiative that would invest $100 billion over the next two years to help create 2 million new jobs in clean energy products and services. Such a program would provide good-paying jobs for middle-class Americans, help lift people out of poverty, help increase energy efficiency and reduce global warming emissions.

Obama's position: Obama would use revenue from auctioning emissions permits from his global warming plan to help develop cleaner energy sources, create green jobs and help lower-income people pay for their energy bills. He also seeks to create a Clean Energy Jobs Corps and Green Job Corps for disadvantaged youth. His plan would create 5 million new green jobs.

AlterNet is an award-winning news magazine and online community that creates original journalism and amplifies the best of dozens of other independent media sources. To see their full story, with sources and comments, go to www.alternet.org/environment