Obama’s Warmer, Cleaner Year By Burt Froom, Stewardship of Creation Educatorr -- The new administration of President Barack Obama has now had a year to establish the policies of his presidential campaign that made combating global warming a top priority. Much has happened in Washington this year. But before we look at President Obama’s accomplishments, let us review the gathering threat of global warming.
Newsletter of the Peacemaking Committee
Obama’s Warmer, Cleaner Year
By Burt Froom, Stewardship of Creation Educatorr
The new administration of President Barack Obama has now had a year to establish the policies of his presidential campaign that made combating global warming a top priority. Much has happened in Washington this year. But before we look at President Obama’s accomplishments, let us review the gathering threat of global warming.
James Gustaf Speth, environmentalist, lawyer, and educator at Yale, says that “all we have to do to destroy the planet’s climate and biota and leave a ruined world to our children and grandchildren is to keep doing exactly what we are doing today.…Just continue to release greenhouse gases at current rates…and the world in the later part of this century will not be fit to live in.” What does this ruined world look like?
The human population explosion puts great pressure on Earth’s resources. Estimated world population now stands at nearly 6.8 billion of us human beings. (At the time of Christ, there were 200 million people. By 1804, there were one billion, and by 1927 there were two billion. England in 1500 had 2.6 million people. India had 125 million in 1750 but today has 1.19 billion. The U.S. population is 308 million, 4.5 percent of the world’s population. But we Americans consume more than 25 percent of Earth’s resources, all by ourselves. Around 27 percent of the world’s people are below age 15, and half of Earth’s people live in poverty.) It is projected that there will be 9 billion people on earth in 2040. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/World_population)
The ever-growing world economy is undermining the planet’s ability to sustain life. Speth tells us that climate disruption is the most severe problem the world faces today. The concentration of carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere has increased by a third since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, mainly because of the use of carbon-rich fossil fuels (coal, oil, and natural gas) and large-scale deforestation.
The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) warns us that air and water temperatures are rising, causing widespread melting of mountain glaciers and polar ice. A three- foot rise in sea levels is predicted in this 21st century, threatening island nations and coastal populations. The Arctic ice cap may disappear in summer as early as 2020. Polar bears and indigenous arctic people are threatened. More intense droughts and stronger storms and hurricanes are expected. Forced migration of up to 850 million people is predicted later in this century.
Water is lost: About half of the world’s wetlands have already disappeared. Plant and animal species are facing extinction. Mighty rivers dry up before reaching the ocean. One-fifth of the world lacks clean drinking water, and 1.6 million children die each year from diseases caused by unsafe drinking water. Public water is privatized for corporate profit.
Fisheries are lost: Today, 75 percent of ocean fish stocks are fished to capacity and beyond. Large predator fish like tuna are 90 percent gone. Pollution from sewage, agricultural wastes, and industrial discharges (like mercury from coal-fired power plants) are poisoning the seas. We are losing the biodiversity that took millions of years to evolve.
Implications: Human beings have now emerged as the new force of nature. Methodist layperson and environmentalist, Bill McKibben, in his 1989 book, The End of Nature, tells us that, with the extra CO2 we have stored in the atmosphere and oceans, we now shape and control Earth’s climate. We are now “stronger than we suspected.…We turn out to be God’s equal – or, at least, his rival – able to destroy creation.” Now we have to “figure out a way to survive on our hot new planet.”
What are we Presbyterian Christians to do with our American civilization that is destroying us and this Earth that God has given us as our home? In 1990, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) adopted the program Restoring Creation for Ecology and Justice to promote awareness and action within the denomination to rescue our endangered planet. Our task is to prize and preserve all life that God created on Earth and pronounced good.
And our job as stewards of creation includes using drastically less fossil fuel energy for all our activities. The British government’s Stern Review says that to cap greenhouse gas emissions and prevent certain ruin of the Earth, the U.S. would have to reduce fossil fuel emissions by 80 percent by 2050. In our churches, we need to foster a new culture that values less instead of more, service instead of wealth, and keeping instead of consuming Earth’s limited and precious resources.
But our individual efforts alone cannot be enough to slow down the accumulation of greenhouse gases in oceans and air. Our American society needs clear and immediate governmental action and intervention in the economic market place to lower the level of CO2 in Earth’s atmosphere before it is too late.
During his eight years in office, President George W. Bush opened vast tracts of public lands and off-shore concessions to oil and gas drilling, coal mining, and timbering. His critics accused him of easing restrictions on old polluting coal-fired power plants, and mountaintop removal coal mining was greatly expanded. Bush bluntly rejected the Kyoto Protocol of 1997. Bush sought unsuccessfully to replace the effective Clean Air Act with his Clear Skies Initiative, which did not address global warming. He weakened enforcement of the Clean Water Act protections of wetlands. The Endangered Species Act and the Clinton administration’s Roadless Area Conservation Rule that protected 58 million acres of national forest land from logging and mining were greatly weakened. And the Bush administration was hostile to scientific research findings.
During the campaign of Barack Obama for the presidency in 2008, his platform made protection of the environment and clean energy strong priorities. Obama supported a market-based cap-and-trade system to reduce carbon emissions. He stressed federal investment in a clean energy economy that would create American jobs. He emphasized energy efficiency to reduce CO2 emissions and reduce energy consumption and save electricity. He stressed restoration of clean air and reinforced drinking water standards. He promised to regulate pollution from corporate meat production and slaughterhouse operations.
Now the United States has suddenly been plunged into a poorer and more perilous reality than any expected. The Great Recession has come upon us. Here in January of 2010, current figures tell us that 10 percent, about 15.3 million people of our 153.1 million person labor force, are unemployed and are looking for work. Another 9.2 million people who want to work full time are employed only part-time. And there are an estimated 2.5 million or more unemployed persons who have given up looking for work. These three categories total about 17.3 percent of the work force. All told, some 27 million of our fellow American citizens need work. An estimated 7.2 million to 8 million jobs have been lost in the past two years. Overall unemployment for blacks is 24.3 percent, for Hispanics 25.1 percent, and for teenagers it is 27.1 percent. The economy needs an estimated 400,000 new jobs per month for more than five years to put every one back to work. (Source: The New York Times web site, January 8, 2010, Economy 101.)
There are political problems. Even though the Democratic Party has clear majorities in both the House of Representatives and the Senate, the solid opposition of the Republican Party in both houses means the White House must compromise constantly and make deals to advance its important legislation. The reform of health care insurance to bring medical treatment to the current 40 million Americans without insurance has consumed much presidential attention. The president carefully weighed U.S. military options in Afghanistan and then committed 30,000 additional troops there, while our armed forces also are fighting to stabilize Iraq. And now the Haiti earthquake has called our people to support huge relief efforts.
This, then, does not seem to be an easy time to reorient national environmental policy. But President Obama has set for himself the goal of national change early in his presidency, and his administration is plunging ahead on many environmental fronts.
Let us turn to assess the actions of the Obama administration during its first year of 1999.
New Leadership. The new president has outfitted his administration with new people from varied backgrounds Environmentalists say that Obama made excellent personnel appointments. The Administrator of the EPA is Lisa Jackson, who was raised in New Orleans, has 20 years experience as an environmental regulator, is a consensus-builder, and is an African American and a chemical engineer.
Other Obama cabinet members dealing with environmental issues include Nobel Prize winner, Dr. Steven Chu, head of the Energy Department; Transportation Secretary, former Republican congressman, Ray LaHood; former governor, Tom Vilsak, Secretary of Agriculture; and former senator, Ken Salazar, Secretary of the Interior. And the Director of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is Dr. Jane Lubechenko. In the White House are (old hand from the Clinton era) Carol Browner as assistant to the President for Energy and Climate and scientist Dr. John Holdren as director of the White House office of Science and Technology Policy.
Stronger Fuel Efficiency Standards. President Obama announced national fuel and greenhouse gas emissions standards for cars and trucks in May. Based on California’s fuel economy standards, these rules will go into effect by 2012 and create a car fleet that will be almost 40 percent cleaner than today and will get an average of 35.5 mpg.
Federal Lighting Standards. President Obama in June announced new federal lighting standards to save energy and cut energy costs by $70 billion over 30 years: the use of tube-shaped fluorescent lights and compact fluorescent lamps (CFLs) that will take effect in 2012.
Carbon Cap. In his February State of the Union address, the president called for a carbon cap to move to a clean energy future. This proposal acknowledges that global warming carbon industrial emissions cost the planet and its people and must be paid for as a part of business costs. The cap restricts the amount of pollution allowed. Allowances to permit a business to pollute above its cap must be bought in a carbon tax market place. Each year the allowances decline to meet annual lower emissions targets.
High Speed Rail. The president has declared his intention to build a nation-wide system of high speed rail lines in some of the country’s most populous corridors.
Canadian Tar Sands Oil Stopped. The EPA in October blocked expansion of a British Petroleum (BP) refinery in Indiana that would have been the largest U.S. refinery of Alberta tar sands crude oil and would have increased numerous oil pollutants in air and water.
The EPA in the Obama administration has assertively emphasized the people’s health, at risk from pollution, and has subjected many Bush administration policies to new scientific review.
Protecting Our Environment:
Roadless Wilderness. The Department of Agriculture placed a one-year moratorium on road building and development in about 50 million acres of remote national forests, including the Tongass National Forest in Alaska. This action reinstated most of the Clinton era ban on roads and logging.
Reduction of Power Plant Emissions. The EPA agreed in October to adopt rules to reduce toxic air pollution from new coal- and gas-burning power plants and oil refineries by November 2011 – in settlement of a lawsuit against the EPA by environmental organizations. Power plants are the largest unregulated industrial source of air toxins.
Utah Wilderness Protected. The Interior Secretary declared 100,000 acres of Utah wilderness protected from oil and gas drilling, and 77 leases were cancelled. Secretary Salazar announced that he would review all off shore oil and gas leases.
Ship Emissions. The EPA acted to reduce diesel ship pollution within 200 miles of U.S. shores. U.S. and foreign-flagged ships will be required to use much cleaner fuel and pollution controls.
Waste Water Infrastructure. The financial recovery act included $6 billion to improve water and waste water infrastructure to avoid polluting our waterways.
Chesapeake Bay. Two presidential executive orders direct federal agencies to work together to improve the Bay and its whole watershed.
EPA Finding on Greenhouse Gases. Responding to the 2007 Supreme Court decision that heat-trapping carbon dioxide is pollution, the EPA issued a finding in December that greenhouse gases (carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, perfluro-carbons, and sulfur hexafluoride) in the atmosphere threaten the health and welfare the American people. Therefore, greenhouse gases can now be regulated by the EPA under the Clean Air Act.
Oceans Policies. President Obama announced the start of a process to create a national policy for our oceans, coasts, and Great Lakes to ensure their protection, maintenance, and restoration.
Marine Mammal Defense. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is conducting a review of the U.S. Navy’s use of powerful sonar that causes deaths of numerous whale, dolphin, and porpoise species off our coasts.
Polar Bear Habitat. In October, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service proposed designating over 200,000 square miles of coastal lands and waters along the north coast of Alaska as “critical habitat” for the polar bear. At the same time, however, the U.S. Mineral Management Service approved oil company plans for exploratory oil drilling in the polar bears’ habitat in the Beaufort Sea, offshore from the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge – which is thus threatened again! And wolves and grizzly bears no longer have federal protection in the American West and are being exterminated wantonly by ranchers and hunters.
Mountaintop Removal. The Bush administration facilitated the demolition of mountain tops in Appalachia, especially in West Virginia, to mine coal, and the dumping of rock and chemicals into streams and rivers. The Obama administration has both approved and blocked 125 permits for new MTR mining. MTR has already destroyed 2000 miles of Appalachian waterways.
Economic Recovery Package. This is the American Recovery and Re-investment Act, the $787 billion stimulus package that was passed by Congress in February. It contains $80 billion for environmental projects like clean water, energy efficiency research, weatherization, advanced batteries, high-speed rail, highways, and transit. The rationale is that if we must revive our economy and create jobs, our resources should go to the future clean energy economy that is being born now.
Public Lands. The landmark Omnibus Public Lands Management Act of 2009 was passed by Congress in March. This legislation grants wilderness status to some two million acres of high value scenic places mainly in the West. It is the largest expansion of protected national wild lands in 15 years, and these wilderness lands are now sheltered from development, vehicles, and commercial activities like logging and mining.
Federal Year 2010 Budget. The 2010 budget, passed by Congress in April, spends $3.55 trillion and it is projected to exceed revenues by $1.4 trillion. It is the greenest, most forward-looking budget Congress has passed in a decade, and includes a comprehensive clean energy and climate plan that will hold polluters accountable and end our dependence on dirty fuels.
Clean Energy Bill. In June, the U.S. House of Representatives passed the American Clean Energy Jobs and American Power bill, a comprehensive clean energy and climate bill, by a close vote, 219-212. It includes a cap and trade global warming reduction plan designed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 17 percent by 2020 and transition to a clean energy economy. The bill went to the U.S. Senate, and the Senate version was passed by the Environment and Public Works Committee in November. Its future is uncertain.
The Obama administration has worked hard to develop coalitions abroad for his clean energy economy and many other issues. The results, so far:
Copenhagen Climate Summit. Capping the substantial progress his administration made during his first year in office, President Obama went to Copenhagen in December for the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change with an incomparable opportunity to reestablish international progress to reduce greenhouse has emissions. Obama has set a goal of cutting U.S. carbon emissions by about 17 percent from 2005 levels by 2020. There were 193 countries represented in Copenhagen, and the leaders of 119 were present. An agreement appeared doubtful because of disagreement among the rich and developing countries over monitoring and reporting progress on carbon emissions.
President Obama’s hands-on engagement was critical to achieving the Copenhagen Accord. He negotiated with the leaders of China, India, Brazil, and South Africa to establish the central terms of the agreement that was adopted by the convention at the last minute by a margin of 188-5. Some attendees were disappointed that internationally enforceable greenhouse gas decreases were not set. The Accord is to be put in place by 2015 and calls for countries to act to decrease carbon pollution to limit a global temperature rise to less than 2 degrees Celsius (or 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit). And it calls for a global fund, proposed by the U.S., which builds up to $100 billion each year by 2020 to protect vulnerable communities and forests worldwide. The next meeting of the parties will be in Mexico City in November 2010.
All of these steps reverse the pro-business stance of the previous administration and establish the foundations for a future U.S. clean energy economy that takes global warming seriously and can create new jobs as the U.S. becomes the world leader of new energy development.
Sources: The Bridge at the Edge of the World, by James Gustave Speth. The End of Nature, by Bill McKibben. Restoring Creation For Ecology and Justice, Office of the General Assembly, The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). The New York Times. The Natural Resources Defense Council (www.nrdc.org/news/). The Sierra Club (www.sierraclub.org/news/).
Burt Froom is a Parish Associate at the Summit Presbyterian Church. He can be reached at Froom1@verizon.net.