Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Environmental Assessment of President Obama's First 100 Days

Having completed his first 100 days in office, President Barack Obama is being evaluated as part of a 77 year old tradition in American Politics. Although 100 days is an admittedly arbitrary yardstick, Americans have been using it to evaluate their Presidents since Franklin Roosevelt was elected in 1932.

On December 18 2008, Yale Environment 360 asked a wide-ranging group to offer advice to Barack Obama for his first 100 days. The respondents included scientists, activists and The Green Market's mentor, eco-entrepreneur Paul Hawken. Despite the broad range of interests, they were largely in agreement that the best way to solve the current economic and environmental challenges is by "weaning the country off fossil fuels and onto renewable sources of energy."

They all agreed that the President should use the Clean Air Act to regulate greenhouse gas emissions and put a price on carbon. They further agreed that he should lead the charge to forge a new global climate change treaty and guided by science move with a sense of urgency.

Here is a summary of Obama's accomplishments on the environmental front since being elected President late last year. Even before taking office, Obama was working to realize his ambitious agenda, on December 15, 2009, then President-Elect Obama appointed a capable team committed to improving America's environmental record. He simultaneously laid out his vision for a new energy economy that sees America as the world leader in clean energy.

Shortly after taking the inaugural oath one of the President's first acts was to sign Green executive orders on January 26, 2009. One demands high standards of fuel efficiency for US vehicles and the other orders the EPA to reconsider its decision to deny California a waiver under the Clean Air Act. (A waiver would allow California and 17 other states to impose stricter limits on greenhouse gas emissions from motor vehicles).

The President's environmental vision is present in The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, this $787 billion economic stimulus package signed by the President on February 17, 2009 includes $100 billion Green stimulus that will create Green jobs. The budget clearly supports the President's view that clean energy and the environment are top priorities and includes funding for various energy and environmental programs. The President also supports US climate change legislation ahead of the international agreement being sought at the COP 15 meeting later this year. The proposed US climate change legislation includes putting a price on carbon through a system of cap-and-trade.

On March 30, 2009 the President signed the Omnibus Public Land Management Act of 2009, a bill that protects more than 2 million acres of wilderness land and creates a national system to conserve another 26 million acres of land controlled by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). The law protects rivers and important wildlife habitat from mining, logging and oil and gas leasing. The law further requires the BLM to make conservation a priority when managing land at 850 sites nationwide. The law includes the first coordinated federal research program on ocean acidification and additional funding to protect ecologically sensitive coastal areas and estuaries.

On Earth Day, April 22, 2009 the President announced a new initiative to lease US coastal waters for the purpose of generating electricity from wind and ocean currents. Recently the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) declared that six greenhouse gases pose a danger to public health and welfare. Should cap-and-trade legislation fail to pass into law, the EPA ruling implies that greenhouse gases could be regulated under the Clean Air Act.

President Obama has changed America's international role from a climate change resistor to a climate change leader. The Bush administration will be remembered for its efforts to exploit resources at the expense of the environment and hide the truth about climate change. In the short time Obama has been in office he has reversed much of his predecessor's woeful environmental record. Obama has restored critical protections under the Endangered Species Act, which had been weakened by the Bush administration's eleventh hour changes and reversed another Bush Administration insult to the environment that allowed mountaintop coal mining. The President has also restored protections for public lands and restricted offshore drilling and oil shale exploration.

The President appears to have addressed all the advice of the experts interviewed by Yale Environment 360. The Sierra Club Executive Director Carl Pope is unequivocal in his praise for the President. As he said in a statement, "It is difficult to overstate the tremendous progress President Obama has made in just 100 days. He has moved swifter and smarter than any president in recent memory. While naysayers warned of doing too much too quickly, President Obama maintained his resolve and his boldness is backed by overwhelming majorities of the American public."

"President Obama has done more to lay the foundation for the clean energy future in three months than has been done in the previous three decades,” Pope continued. “His economic recovery plan, the budget, and a sweeping set of executive branch actions amount to a huge down payment on a cleaner, more prosperous future.”

Despite intransigent opposition from Republicans, the President enjoys widespread support. At least one Republican has realized that American conservativism is sinking. Republican Senator Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania realized that his party is in the politically untenable position of criticizing the President without being able to offer a viable alternative, leading him to renounce his Republican roots and switch allegiance. Specter is one of only three Republican senators to vote in favor of the stimulus package and in a bid to gain favor amongst his constituents, he announced Tuesday that he is leaving the Republicans and joining Obama's Democrats, bringing them within reach of a filibuster-proof 60 seat majority.

President Obama has put the environment at the forefront of the American national agenda, he has created a new clean energy vision and given science its rightful place in policy decisions. The President gets an A+ for his efforts to forge responsible environmental policies and build a viable green economy, however, after the honeymoon is over, Republican resistance and misinformation will hinder President's agenda.

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