Obama’s first hundred days from an environmental perspective

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Obama had barely walked through the doors before he changed The White House’s website and presented his climate goals: Five million new jobs to be created by investing $150 million in renewable energies over 10 years; one million US built plug-in hybrid cars on the road by 2015; ten percent of electricity to come from renewable sources by 2012, increased to 25 percent by 2025; the introduction of an all-encompassing cap and trade system to cut US emissions by 80 percent by 2050.

International change of climate
America’s international climate policies have also undergone dramatic changes. This Easter, the new US climate negotiator, Todd Stern, was met with applause during a UN climate change meeting in Bonn. The meeting in the former West German capital was one of the last preparatory meetings before the summit meeting in Copenhagen in December. The goal of this meeting will be to establish a new international climate agreement regulating global greenhouse gas emissions and preventing global warming from continuing to be a threat to all of us.

“We are vey glad to be back”, Stern said and continued; “we want to make up for lost time” referring to the last eight years in which former president George W. Bush had denied the seriousness of global warming, censored scientist and doctored the conclusions of scientific studies. Even more importantly the Bush administration delayed international processes on the matter and badmouthed the United Nations as a legitimate arena for international policy and diplomacy. Todd Stern made it clear in Bonn that the United States now recognizes its responsibility as the greatest polluter in history.

For the new climate agreement to become a success at the Copenhagen negotiations it is vital that rich countries step forward showing ability and determination to both enact policies and provide much needed funding for both mitigation and adaptation projects in developing countries. Looking towards the future, it is very encouraging that the United States is undertaking a different position than it did during the Bush Administration.

Green stimulus package
Obama was given a rough start by coming to office in the middle of a global financial meltdown. With good help from his advisors, many of whom were also part of president Clinton’s team, he presented a green stimulus package.

The stimulus package has opened up investments that emphasize green technology to an extent that not even the most optimistic environmental groups could have imagined.

A great effort is underway on wind and solar energy, energy efficiency, renovation of the US electrical grid, and the building of high-speed trains. Where Bush leaned heavily on an airy vision of a future hydrogen-based society supplemented with nuclear energy and increased extraction of oil, coal and gas, Obama has used the financial crisis to create green growth that will make the US less dependent on foreign oil.

In addition, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has started the work to regulate CO2 emissions. The background for this is a 2007 US Supreme Court ruling that agrees with a group of states led by Massachusetts that brought suit to declare that CO2 is a harmful pollutant and therefore must regulated through policy measures.

A question of time
Obama may succeed in many of his climate goals, but some of the deadlines could become very difficult to meet. His suggestions must be approved by both chambers of Congress – the Senate and the House of Representatives. Senate approval is an especially long and winding road. The global financial crisis has led to an abrupt halt in capital investments, and could make it difficult to reach some of the goals before deadline. But hopefully Obama’s stimulus package will get the economy back onto its feet.

It is also highly improbable that Congress will finish their processing of Obama’s cap and trade bill before the Copenhagen summit begins in December. A number of think tanks would have preferred a clean cut tax system. It is important to remember that during the final negotiations for the Kyoto Protocol, the president Bill Clinton did not have support from Congress to commit the US to an internationally binding framework. The negotiators had to return to the climate negotiations sitting on their hands.

If the Americans once again come to the table without a finished federal framework, it will be a signal to the rest of the world that there is no rush in agreeing on a new climate deal. What Congress decides will be of utmost importance for the policies forged in other countries that are large emitters like China, India and Brazil.

The honeymoon is over
President Obama started by promising a new approach with greater openness and to put an end to the quarreling between Democrats and Republicans on Capitol Hill. Now the hundred-day honeymoon for the new president is over, and hunting season is open.

Several Republicans claim that the announced openness has not been honored, and have gathered forces against both climate bills and financial stimulus packages. The Democrats ponder whether to push bills through Congress with the smallest margins possible.

Lobbyists in Washington DC have spent more than $200 million on advertisements and campaigns attacking climate legislation based on a cap and trade system as a trigger mechanism. Before the 2008 elections, power companies spent millions of dollars on propaganda equivalent to the cost of building two carbon capture and storage (CCS) facilities.

Criticism of Obama will be mounting, and Republican mouthpieces assert that Obama’s suggested policies will lead to massive job loss and a yearly financial loss of $2 trillion. For his part, Obama says jobs are on the way. We support Obama’s view that a new green economy will create future job growth, his vision of a future based on renewables, and that solutions to today’s climate challenges will emerge.

This commentary also appeared in the Norwegian national daily newspaper Dagsavisen.