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Green presidency

November 3, 2011

As presidential candidate Barack Obama ran on a bold green agenda. He vowed to reverse the climate change policy of his predecessor and push for green jobs. But one year before the election the results are mixed at best.

Barack Obama in Copenhagen
The Copenhagen conference scuppered Obama's plansImage: AP

"Few challenges facing America - and the world - are more urgent than combating climate change," President-elect Obama declared in California two weeks after the 2008 vote. And he promised: "My presidency will mark a new chapter in America's leadership on climate change that will strengthen our security and create millions of new jobs."

And there was no shortage of events and incidents to help galvanize support for this ambitious environmental platform.

In his first year in office, with a Democrat-controlled Congress and just two months after being honored with the Nobel Peace Price, President Obama, armed with the latest research outlining the dire consequences of climate change, attended what was arguably the most high stakes environmental policy drama ever staged: the Copenhagen Climate Conference.

Copenhagen collapse

The result was the biggest reality check for anyone who believed Barack Obama could indeed restore American leadership on climate issues. The Copenhagen conference couldn't agree on a comprehensive global climate regime and is widely regarded as the final nail in the coffin of serious international climate legislation. That was in December 2009.

Four months later and much closer to home, the biggest oil spill in history wreaked havoc on the marine environment in the Gulf of Mexico. But after a government-mandated moratorium on drilling that ended a year ago, it has been basically back to business as usual for the petroleum industry in the Gulf and elsewhere.

In year three of the Obama administration, the biggest nuclear accident since the Chernobyl catastrophe of 1986 shocked Japan and the world. The string of nuclear meltdowns in Fukushima caused a global debate about the safety of nuclear energy and led to Japan ditching plans to step up its use of nuclear power and Germany to phase out nuclear power entirely.

Smoke rises from Fukushima plant
The Fukushima accident didn't alter US nuclear policyImage: AP

Meanwhile in the US, utility giant Southern Company is on track to get permission to build two new nuclear reactors at its plant in Georgia. According to media reports, the company had already received the green light for limited construction in August and hopes to get final permission at the end of the year.

End of a green presidency

So why with a Democratic majority during his first year in office and two cataclysmic environmental disasters has Obama not delivered on his promise to become the first green president?

Two reasons, say experts.

First, because of a general resistance to comprehensive climate legislation in Congress that cuts across party lines which made it hard for Obama to even convince all his fellow Democrats. Second, because Obama simply had other priorities like health care and financial reform.

"He just didn't put enough of his political capital behind it," Sascha Müller-Kraenner, European representative of The Nature Conservancy, a major international environmental organization based in Arlington, Virginia, told Deutsche Welle.

After Obama's signature green bill foundered in Congress, the president wasn't itching for more eco fights that he felt he was unlikely to win.

"A lot of mainstream politicians including I must say the president seem to have drawn the conclusion from the failed climate legislation that there is nothing to gain by promoting environmental causes in the US," notes Müller-Kraenner.

Lacking leadership

That might help explain the lackluster reaction of the White House after the Fukushima accident in Japan and the Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf.

A president who campaigned to win back America's lost position as the globe's environmental leader could have seized these moments. He could have promoted bold measures in the wake of these disasters to prevent similar accidents in the US in the future and usher in a greener US energy policy.

Instead, even after Fukushima Obama continues to support nuclear energy.

As for the Deepwater Horizon spill, in the eyes of many experts the Obama administration botched its response to the largest environmental disaster in US history, leaving the crisis management and communication essentially up to BP executives.

Deepwater Horizon platform on fire
The Obama administration bungled its response to the biggest oil spill in historyImage: AP

The president was eventually forced to apologize for the government's bungled actions and later issued a limited drilling moratorium which was quickly overturned in court.

Alexander Ochs, director of the climate and energy program at the Worldwatch Institute in Washington, isn't all that surprised about Obama's reactions to the Fukushima and Deepwater Horizon accidents. He notes that Obama upon becoming president considered nuclear energy a clean technology and it doesn't seem Fukushima changed his stance.

Energy security vs. environment

What's more, says Ochs, energy security for most key players in the US simply trumps environmental protection. By continuing or even expanding domestic drilling for oil, those players hope to decrease US dependency on imported oil, which in the long run is impossible because of decreasing reserves.

And yet, despite many shortcomings, it wouldn't be fair to label Obama as an abject failure on the environment. While it wasn't hard to beat the environmental record set by his predecessor, Obama does deserve credit for some important green initiatives, argue the experts.

As part of the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, the Obama administration has made available investments in renewable energy projects totaling $90 billion (65 billion euros), explains Ochs. He adds that the so-called Cafe standard, i.e. the fuel standard for cars and light trucks, has been raised substantially. And the way in which federal agencies analyze environmental impact of green house gas emissions has also been improved.

While these efforts sound mundane compared to a sweeping international climate mandate they are important and do produce clear environmental change, says Ochs.

Framing the debate

Still, looking ahead at the presidential election campaign the analysts worry that the environment could once again only surface as a drag on an already sluggish economy.

"So far energy is again being viewed from a very conservative lens and the environmental perspective is still missing, also from Mr. Obama's platform," says Müller-Kraenner.

"Environmental protection could indeed play a role in the election to the extent that it can be cast by Republicans as a job killer," says Ochs. "If Republicans are successful in framing it this way it can become quite a liability for Obama and Congress Democrats."

President-elect Obama's promise in California to restore America’s leadership position in climate change these days sounds like it comes from a different era. And yet it is only three years old.

Author: Michael Knigge

Editor: Rob Mudge