Editor's blog: Great Expectations

Posted: 20 February 2009

The burden laid upon President Obama following his inauguration as the 44th President of the United States - to try and solve the world's problems, along with those of his own country - is huge.

The expectations may also be unrealistic. As political scientists have pointed out, only a handful of American presidents have actually been successful in achieving their policy goals. And, in this case, the immediate dangers of wars and economic collapse could easily distract from the greater tsunami of climate change and depleting natural resources that is approaching with remorseless speed.

Barack Obama
Barack Obama
President-elect Barack Obama. Photo © www.cutyourfootprint.com
But on the environmental front, as on others, George Bush's presidency has shown the power of that office, for good or ill. In many respects his administration was a disaster for the environment, from its long refusal to join global efforts to tackle climate change, to its disinterest in family planning and population issues, and its weakening of habitat and wildlife protection. (See: Bush 'eviscerates wildlife protection'). Only very recently did the former president take an uncharacteristic step in the right direction by ordering the conservation of large swathes of the Pacific Ocean. (See: Bush protects world's largest marine conservation area).

Every report from the scientific community confirms the scale of the climate crisis, which makes all the other stresses of our over-populated and wastefully consuming world more acute. The latest study by US scientists into the impact of these forces on future food supplies found that half the world's people could face severe food shortages by the end of the century as rising temperature take their toll on farmer's crops. Already, another 40 million people have been pushed into hunger this year, by higher food prices, says FAO, bringing the number of undernourished people in the world last year to 963 million, compared to 929 million in 2007. (See: Billions face food shortages, study warns).

So what should Obama do in his first 100 days? That is a question put to a range of experts by a Yale University website. Their answers have been shared with us and make fascinating reading. (See: A Green Agenda for Obama's First 100 Days). All agree that the climate crisis is far more urgent than previously believed. And most see the need to tackle the economic crisis as an opportunity to take very radical steps to invest massively in energy efficiency and renewable technology.

But only one or two stress the need for a global approach "to solve the immense human predicament - the combined crises of overpopulation, wasteful consumption, deteriorating life-support systems, growing inequity, increasing hunger, toxification of the planet, declining resources, increasing resource wars, and a worsening epidemiological environment that increases the probability of unprecedented pandemics", to quote Paul and Anne Ehrlich.

It is a challenging scenario, but one must take hope in President Obama's forthright approach to it, and the talented science and environment team he has named to help him tackle it. (See: Strong climate activist to be Obama's science adviser). Already, he has pledged to double the production of green energy in the next three years. See the Alternet report.

John Rowley

P.S.: ABC television in the United States has launched an unprecedented video game, asking contributors to use their imagination to create short videos about what it would be like to live through the next century if we stay on our current pathways. You can see ABC's own video interviews with world experts and sign up to join in here