The Green Scene

Jess Vogt

It seems lately that all the columns in the Lawrentian are about the recent election of Barack Obama as the next president of the United States. “Change!” the columns read. “Things will be different under Obama. It’s history in the making!” Okay, it’s true, don’t get me wrong, the election of an African American president is historic, and a lot of things will change under the Obama Administration. The economy may be fixed, the War in Iraq may end, our image abroad may be renewed, and, if you believe in miracles, we will enact universal health care.
Sure, all these things might happen. But what I’m most anxious about is not the economy — though it is frightening to think I will be entering it and the job market in a little over 6 months — nor the US image abroad, though this will be a major bonus to any globetrotting I do in the future. What I am most concerned about, as you might have guessed, is the state of our national and global environment, and the US contribution to carbon emissions and anthropogenic climate change.
Through the past several administrations — yes, the Clinton years, too — US commitment to global climate change initiatives has been, let’s see, less than adequate? Ineffective? Imaginary? Puerile? I could pick any number of adjectives, but the point is, there really has been no serious commitment to climate change, alternative energy or preserving our natural environment since Carter’s stringent gas mileage standards were enacted, some of which have actually gotten less stringent in years since.
During the Bush Administration in particular, special interests have dictated what policies prevail, often at the cost of natural spaces and overuse of natural resources. As Annie Leonard notes in “The Story of Stuff” (, after 9/11, when the Bush administration had the opportunity to retool the economy with renewable energy policies in the interest of reducing American dependence on foreign oil, the President instead encouraged us to shop, shop, shop, to prove the American dream by consuming much more than our share of the global resource base.
Barack Obama promises that his first priority will be an economic stimulus package that will create as a byproduct 5 million new “green collar” jobs. By encouraging energy efficient cars and homes, Obama plans to save our economy, decrease US dependence on foreign oil,and solve global warming all in one fell swoop. Of course, he realizes that this will take time — a lot of time — which is why he sets emissions reductions goals to the terribly ambitious tune of reaching 1990 levels by 2020. For comparison, the Kyoto Protocol, which the US did not, has not, and will not sign, asked for a reduction of US emissions to 7 percent below 1990 levels by 2012.
Furthermore, Obama’s specific mechanisms for emissions reductions are primarily limited to cap-and-trade efforts, the old school of thought for reducing human impacts on the climate and environment. Even if more stringent requirements are set, managing global warming by cap-and-trade efforts is putting a Band-Aid on a gaping wound and not addressing the source of the problem. Efforts are needed upstream of capping-and-trading, in the form of non-emitting energy sources that will result in drastic emissions reductions.
Personally, I would like to see the Obama Administration conduct a more ambitious rethinking of all the ways in which our society impacts the environment — consumption of natural resources, destruction of the biosphere, accumulation of wastes and pollutants — in addition to a discussion of large-scale anthropogenic climate change. A more holistic and interdisciplinary focus on all aspects of a sustainable society would require mobilization of a force of bodies and brains larger even than that which got Obama elected, but would result a sustainable US on par to compete with current sustainability and climate change initiatives in Europe.
On Nov. 5, the day after the election, a headline in the British daily news publication The Guardian, read “Obama victory signals rebirth of US environmental policy.” Perhaps it is good to be optimistic about the future. Without the optimism of the thousands of people who worked for the Obama campaign, I might not be writing this right now. However, many decisions of the Administration-elect have yet to come, and let’s not forget about the all-important activities of Congress. Much remains to be seen of the forthcoming works of the Obama team. The only thing I can say before Jan. 20 is that “we’ll see.