Obama will accelerate his environmental agenda as a result of the new electoral mandate, especially given his victories in Virginia and Ohio where the coal industry was a formidable base of opposition. Little-noticed in his first term – except by the hard Right – Obama included an unprecedented $200 billion for energy conservation and renewables in his stimulus package, in addition to the near doubling of fuel efficiency standards.
Now the eastern storms will cause massive attention to green infrastructure and rebuilding standards. Call it Green Keynesianism or the Green New Deal; it could be here at last. In terms of his legacy, the transition to a green future has to be among the president’s most urgent and concrete priorities. The catastrophe unfolding on the East Coast may give the president and the combined labor, environmental and civil rights movements the opportunity for the unity they need to confront and decisively defeat the free market fundamentalists and global warming deniers.
This green recovery and reconstruction agenda can be furthered with stronger leadership from the new chairman of the Senate Natural Resources Committee, Ron Wyden (D-OR). As with Wall Street reform, Obama and Senator Harry Reid (D-NV) should encourage the creation of a Senate environmental leadership bloc to make up for years of lost time. Governor Andrew Cuomo and perhaps California’s Gov. Jerry Brown can create a powerful fulcrum of state-based power to advance the transition.
The ongoing challenge for the “environmental community,” now more mandatory than ever in light of the electoral demographics, is the transition to an environmental justice framework in which communities and leaders of color play more decisive roles. A similar transition is required on a planetary basis as well. Obama’s awkward firing of Van Jones as his early “green jobs czar” was a significant setback after an auspicious (and symbolic) beginning. His EPA appointee, Lisa Jackson, served as another example of the president’s interest in integrating the environmental ranks, but the examples will have to proliferate more rapidly. Also complicated will be how the president incorporates organized labor’s leadership in sketching out a planned energy transition that expands jobs and decent wages.
The president cannot play his “all of the above” energy-sources strategy through the second term, since it is more political than substantive. “All of the above” ignores the question of his priorities: which energy policies, in which order, with what resources and regulations, and with what interim compromises, will get America to a renewable resources future most rapidly? And what are the politics of getting through such a transition? The cornerstone of new priorities would seem to lie in setting a goal of achieving maximum energy and economic results from conservation and renewable investments, not treating the green alternatives as only one of several “options.”
One of the most complicated questions facing environmentalists is whether to accept the assertions of esteemed scientists like James Hansen that an irreversible tipping point will be reached if the XL pipeline is approved and implemented. Building the XL pipeline, Hansen has said, will be “game over.” But even if the Obama administration approves the pipeline on paper, the pipeline fight could play out over a decade, and could suddenly be rivaled in intensity by regional battles over fracking, or the sudden occurrence of another Fukushima on the California coast or in New York City. In actuality, it is a long game, which will not be “over” in Obama’s second term or our lifetimes.
In addition to embracing Green Keynesianism instead of a free-market energy model, it will become increasingly difficult for environmentalists to avoid the basic connection between the energy crisis and the Long War, which is a “resources war” for oil and gas as well described by Michael Klare. The peace, social justice, labor, educational and environmental movements must seek ways to dialogue, unify, and not divide, their efforts at creating a comprehensive alternative to the status quo.