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Obama’s first month: 31 days that made — and may remake — history

By Joe Romm on February 19, 2009 at 6:30 pm

"Obama’s first month: 31 days that made — and may remake — history"

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What team Obama has accomplished in its first month is nothing less than an unprecedented reversal of decades of unsustainable national policy forced down the throat of the American public by conservatives.

As but one example, has there been a single story in the traditional media about the fact that Obama, for the first time in three decades, has dramatically increased funding for energy efficiency and renewable energy R&D? Since Ronald Reagan became president in 1981, and slashed federal efficiency and renewables investments 80% to 90%, conservatives have blocked all efforts to ramp up funding in cleantech (see “Who got us in this energy mess? Start with Ronald Reagan” and “Why is our energy policy so lame? Ask the three GOP stooges.“).

The net result is that we lost market leadership in all of the major job-creating industries of the century — wind power, solar energy, and so on — since every other rich country in the world (and some developing ones like China and India) are not so ideologically blinkered (see below).

But much of the traditional media sees only the short-term partisan horse race, like some corporate CEO focused on the next quarter even as their company goes belly up. My favorite such misguided headline so far is from USA Today:

Stimulus slammed as Dems’ agenda

When are the media and the nation’s opinionmakers going to realize that the storyline of the decade — the storyline of the century — is not Dems vs. R’s or progressives vs. conservatives, but all of us vs. the 1,000 years of misery that is inevitable on our path of unregulated greenhouse gas emissions? (see Hadley Center: Catastrophic 5-7°C warming by 2100 on current emissions path and NOAA stunner: Climate change “largely irreversible for 1000 years,” with permanent Dust Bowls in Southwest and around the globe).

Years from now, long after the economy has recovered, this may well be remembered as the time that progressives, led by Obama, began the climate-saving transition to a sustainable low-carbon economy built around green jobs.

Call me a cock-eyed optimist [OK, maybe more like a Spock-eyed optimist].

How has Obama jumpstarted the one true task of every U.S. President of the 21st century — preserving the health and welfare of the next 100 billion people to walk the Earth?

1) He began the process of blocking the vast majority of new coal plants. The EPA has stopped one new coal plant in South Dakota (Obama EPA blocks South Dakota Coal Power Plant), reversed the Bush EPA’s effort to ignore the Supreme Court decision that determined carbon dioxide was a pollutant (and hence that CO2 emissions from new coal-fired power plants needed regulating), and initiated the process of regulating greenhouse gases for the first time in U.S. history.

2) He unleashed his Cabinet to start inconvenient-truth telling to the public after 8 years of Administration denial and muzzling of U.S. scientists (see Steven Chu: “Wake up,” America, “we’re looking at a scenario where there’s no more agriculture in California,” and “This is a real economic disaster in the making for our children, for your children”).

3) He began the process to dramatically increase the efficiency of our vehicles, by ordering EPA to quickly give California and a dozen other states the right to put in place tough emissions requirements for tailpipe emissions of greenhouse gases — and by ordering the Department of Transportation to quickly issue and phase-in toughrt fuel economy standards to comply with the 2007 Energy Bill, the first overhaul of the nation’s fuel efficiency standards in over three decades (see here).

4) He signed into law the tax credits needed to achieve his ambitious goal of 1 million plug-in hybrids by 2015 — the key alternative fuel vehicle strategy needed to avert the worst consequences of three decades of successful conservative efforts to stop this country from dealing with the energy/economic security threat of rising dependence on imported oil and the inevitably grim impacts of peak oil (see “Why electricity is the only alternative fuel that can lead to energy independence“). Plug-ins, of course, are a core climate solution, since electric drives are more efficient, easily powered by carbon-free energy and indeed far cheaper to operate per mile than gasoline, even when running on renewable power. In the longer term, plug ins and electric cars can also help enable the full renewable revolution. Obama also enacted into law $2 billion in grants and loans for R&D into advanced vehicle batteries, a tenfold increase over current funding.

5) He signed into law a massive investment in high-speed rail, mass transit, and train travel. This 70% boost in funding is a crucial effort needed to prepare this country for a time when air travel simply becomes too expensive for most people (and then a slightly later time when air travel is seen as simply too destructive of a livable climate) — a time not very far away — one that the vast majority of readers of this blog will live to see.

6) He signed into law the tax credits needed meet his ambitious goal of doubling renewables in his first term (see “Another big win for renewables in the stimulus bill“).

7) He signed into law the funding needed to jumpstart a 21st smart grid that is critical to enable the renewable energy, energy efficiency, and plug-in hybrid revolution.

8) He signed into law the single biggest investment in the deployment of energy-efficient technology in U.S. history, along with strong incentives for state governments to fix their inefficiency-promoting utility regulations.

9) As noted above, for the first time in three decades, he more than doubled the annual budget for advanced energy efficiency, renewable energy, and low carbon technology after decades of vehement ideological opposition by even so-called moderate and maverick conservatives (see “Is a possible 60th Senate seat worth a not-very-green GOP Commerce Secretary?” and “The greenwasher from Arizona has a record as dirty as the denier from Oklahoma“)

Others can and should add to this history-making — and possibly history-changing — list of accomplishments.

UPDATE: Given the crucial nature of a deal with China (see “Does a serious bill need action from China?“), the fact that Clinton made China and climate a core component of her first foreign trip is, I think, another notable accomplishment of the administration in its first month.

I will endeavor to ignore by way of brief ridicule the policy brief, released last week by the Peterson Institute for International Economics (PIIE) and the World Resources Institute (WRI) that argued “a green stimulus is no replacement for comprehensive climate and energy policy.”

Duh!

Note to Voodoo International Economists: Obama’s only been President a friggin’ month! The comprehensive climate and energy policy that Obama campaigned on — that obviously he could not be more serious about given his appointments and public statements and initial actions — is coming!

Seriously, PIIE and WRI are like the 5-year-old in the backseat saying “are we there yet?” a minute after we pulled out of the driveway! I can hardly wait for their issue briefs on how Obama has failed to balance the budget and cut the unemployment rate in his first month. Okay, that wasn’t brief ridicule.

The sanest description I have seen of the stimulus by itself comes from renewables guru Scott Sklar:

This is the single largest green energy bill in history. It’s a very, very big deal.

I want to end with a brief review of just one consequence of three decades of successful efforts by conservatives to

· cut or roll-back federal efforts to advance clean energy (when they had full control of the federal purse strings) and

· block progressive efforts to advance clean energy (when they have only partial control)

With the major government investments in wind in the 1970s, the United States was poised to be a dominant player in what was clearly going to be one of the biggest job creating industries of the next hundred years. But conservatives repeatedly gutted the wind budget, then opposed efforts by progressives to increase it, and repeatedly blocked efforts to extend the wind power tax credit. The sad result can be seen here:

wind-2007-small.jpg

That’s right. Thanks to the tireless efforts of conservatives, the United States is now a bit player in an industry we launched (we had 90% of global installed capacity in the mid-1980s) — a now $50 billion a year industry that will soon be a $100 billion a year industry as the nation and the world gets serious about global warming.

Of course, it’s entirely possible that this history-making first month won’t remake history. It’s more than possible that we won’t stop catastrophic warming, if we’re being realistic. But if we don’t stop the 1,000 years of misery, that will almost certainly be because the conservative movement threw their entire weight behind humanity’s self-destruction (see “Anti-science conservatives must be stopped“) — and the lopsided vote on the stimulus bill will be the first time in the Obama adminstration that conservatives in both chambers signaled their refusal to conserve anything, including a livable climate, a willingness to sacrifice the health and well-being of the next 50 generations of Americans for their ideology.

But for now let’s celebrate Obama’s unprecedented first month — since the traditional media sure as heck won’t.

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14 Responses to Obama’s first month: 31 days that made — and may remake — history

  1. Will Koroluk says:

    As a Canadian (and Ottawan) I can say that many of us would welcome Obama back any time. Several times of late, I have heard people wonder aloud “where’s our Obama.

  2. Will Koroluk says:

    Joe–You and your readers might be interested in a piece by James Hansen in the Ottawa Citizen just ahead of Obama’s visit. A nice summation of why the Alberta tar sands shouldn’t be developed.
    http://www.ottawacitizen.com/Business/brakes+sands/1304220/story.html

  3. Rod Adams says:

    Joe:

    I am still confused by the focused effort by people who claim to be progressive and concerned about climate change to remove the provision that would have increased the loan guarantee authority for clean energy projects under a program initially defined by the Energy Policy Act of 2005, an act that President Obama voted for and John McCain voted against.

    The story line was that the provision was a $50 billion gift from the taxpayers to the nuclear power industry, even thought the professional budgeters figured out that they only needed to allocate $500 million. The program is also specifically not limited to nuclear power projects; many others can qualify.

    I know that you keep pointing to the cost of new nuclear power plants, and I have gotten tired of arguing over projections. Since there are not yet any completed projects, it is an exercise in assumption making.

    What I do know is that the currently operating nuclear power plants have a demonstrable record of providing clean, reliable power at a very low marginal cost. They are a major part of the “large baseload” on which your wind dreams ride and I would hope that they are your preferable part of that baseload since almost all of the rest is from dirty coal plants that do not even meet the Clean Air Act standards.

    If the cost of nuclear power is really the major objection, wouldn’t it be more useful to work on ways to lower the costs than to simply assume that they will be ever increasing? Building nuclear plants is, to a large degree, a manufacturing and construction project where the costs can be reasonable or almost infinitely large depending on the way that the project is financed, managed and executed.

    [JR: I explained the fraudulent, high-risk nature of that loan provision in a previous post. I have always said that I'm happy to support next-generation nuclear R&D. I also think the industry has to come together on a single design for the United States, not the 5 or so they are currently pushing.

    Many current nuclear plants were sold off at below market value costs. Like I've said many times, my home would be incredibly cheap to live in were it not for the mortgage. I'm not opposed at all to nuclear power, only to the taxpayer swallowing all the risk to push a mature technology that is simply far more expensive than many, many zero carbon alternatives.]

  4. Bob Wallace says:

    Rod, do you really think that there haven’t been huge efforts made trying to reduce the cost of new nuclear?

    What would you cut, the review process? Perhaps we should just leave out the safety gear?

    Or would you give nuclear plants our tax money and keep that cost off the books?

    Trying to argue that new nuclear produced electricity should be as cheap as power from a plant built 20+ years ago is like arguing that power from a new major hydro site would be as cheap as power from Norris Dam, the TVA facility built in the 1930s.

  5. Bob Wright says:

    There are modular, standardized GenIII nukes now under construction in China, and going through NRC review in the US that will bring down the cost. The remaining (huge) problems are time and the waste/safe recycling/fuel extension issues. Renewables are here and now.

    Fox News has all the old neocon wannabes screaming the stimulus plan is pure pork, including the energy initiatives. Harry reid finally got his choo choo to Las Vegas! (Maybe some elements of the plan deserve criticism, but this is a smear.) Obama and ACORN forcing banks to stop red-lining in Chicago casued the recession, don’t ya know! Obama didn’t inherit the mess. He caused it! I get it at work, and from some relatives.

    With attitudes like that, noisy climate change deners, and Fox News, Obama might as well stop trying to appease the Republicans and energy special interests and use the majority in Congress do what is necessary.

  6. cait says:

    Sorry to go all nay-sayer n’all here chaps, but aren’t you forgetting the rest of the world?

    God knows, I love the potential that Obama represents as much as anyone, but the damage being inflicted by the growth of economies (and coal burning) in China and India isn’t suddenly going to disppear just because the US President has made some decent progress locally?

    Not actually relevant: I was thinking this morning that maybe the only way to get things moving globally is to couch all this in terms of a war, given that War is the only thing that really seems to galvanise people (and make them accept lifestyle sacrifice). Well. Partially relevant. This is a *global* war for survival.

    And the US is not, contrary to popular belief..er.. in the US, the world’s only major influencer.

    [JR: I guess you don't read this blog regularly. Or even the full post. It's only been a month. Not really enough time to change the world.

    But as I have written many times, the top priority is a deal with China -- rats, I just realized I left Clinton's first trip there out of Obama's major accomplishments, the recognition by him and his top foreign policy folks of urgent need to start bilateral discussions with China on climate.]

  7. cait says:

    Just re-reading, I did get that a bit skewed, you’re right.

  8. athada says:

    Wouldn’t adding some $0.7 trillion to the already astronomical national debt be the very definition of “unsustainable national policy”? Even an idiot like me can usually balance a checkbook… shouldn’t we expect at least that from the supposedly most capable governors in our nation?

    Signed,
    Obama-voter, living on credit

  9. J4zonian says:

    athada,

    I’m confused. Certainly the billionaire bailout was a monstrous travesty; the tax-cut parts of the stimulus as well, and we (including Obama, who voted yes on most of the crimes of the Cheney-Rove administration) could have done better. You can thank that last administration and the Republicans and Blue Dogs and OK, most of the other Democrats in Congress, for jacking up the debt and deficit for a big stick, a couple of wars/occupations and that CEO perk package. What do you suggest? Doing nothing that costs money until we pay it all off? So why did you vote for Obama when Dennis Kucinich, Ralph Nader and Cynthia McKinney were available?

    Like I said, not trying to pick a fight. Just confused.

  10. J4zonian says:

    Rod Adams,

    As soon as you said “loan guarantee authority for clean energy projects” I started to get that feeling in my gut—the one that usually ends up with me flabbergasted by the brazenness and dissociative ability of the ‘faith-based’—aka anti-science, anti-reason, crowd.

    “I know that you keep pointing to the cost of new nuclear power plants, and I have gotten tired of arguing over projections. Since there are not yet any completed projects, it is an exercise in assumption making.”

    And there it goes—the transition from queasy stomach to throbbing blood vessels along my temples. I’m not entirely sure what you mean, since I keep thinking you can’t possibly mean what you seem to be saying. Maybe that’s intentional on your part. In any case I think by “new” you mean “planned, not yet built”, since it’s the only translation that makes sense in the light of half a century of actual “completed projects”—some less than a decade ago. But you say “there aren’t any completed projects”, which of course is absolutely true and logical if you refer to “new”/planned-but-not-built projects, since something can’t at the same time be completed and not yet built. (as far as I can ferret out, anyway).

    But then that whole paragraph becomes a tautology, and meaningless as far as explaining why you’re tired of arguing about the costs of (nuke) projections. Maybe you’re tired of it because you always lose, and maybe that happens because you’re always wrong, and maybe that’s because you’re arguing the wrong side.

    Currently operating nukes and their owner-operators have a demonstrable record of coming in waaaaaaaay over budget, raising utility rates, polluting (mine tailings, just for a start), causing cancer, having accidents (Chernobyl, TMI, Brown’s Ferry, numerous other near-disasters), lying to regulators and covering up shoddy, irresponsible, illegal and dangerous practices and construction, (when there was any semblance of a regulating regulatory agency to even disover the lies) and even so, being expensive and unreliable. They destroy economic democracy; they suck up capital which could be used to conserve or to supply power far cheaper, far more ecologically and democratically, by solar, wind and other renewable sources. Far from being the major objection, cost is the least terrible thing about nuclear power. It is only the thing most people pay the most attention to.

    No matter how little you charge for it, a steaming deposit of plague-ridden diarrhea is still a pile of shit.

  11. J4zonian says:

    oops, left a c out of discover in paragraph 5.

    i could just say i needed it elsewhere and then plug the (viral) Campaign for the 3Cs–our current 3 major interlinked challenges of Climate catastrophe, restoring the Constitution, and reducing the power of Corporations. 3 symptoms of our 1 main problem, which is psychological and systemic. Can’t solve any without working on the other 2.

  12. Mark Shapiro says:

    You’re right, Joe — this is pretty amazing list for the first 31 days, and all while the economy is tanking and Pakistan is coming apart.

    One other item for the list: Obama appointed an envoy for climate change (Todd Stern) at the State Dept. This is a creative and necessary step. It won’t accomplish anything by itself, but it could prove pivotal in dealing with China, India, etc.

  13. athada says:

    J4zonian,

    Just pointing out that ever-increasing debt cannot ultimately be sustainable in any sense of the word. What do I suggest? My little voice doesn’t much matter, but I don’t think it’s too much to ask our legislators to formulate some plan for paying off the debt. We are one of the wealthiest countries on earth and we’re borrowing money? It doesn’t add up. I’d rather go through a reasonable amount of belt tightening now instead of ruining our currency, economy, and lifestyle after gorging on a fantasy.

    I did consider other issues besides the national debt when I voted. Whatever the case, the legislators are who they are so now is the time to hold them accountable. … Good luck with that.

  14. J4zonian says:

    athada,

    Well, personally I think your voice does matter; that’s why I asked for clarification. And I think it’s self-evident that ever-increasing debt is unsustainable. I only suggest that if we don’t take government-supported action now the biosphere will be unsustainable, and that will be far worse than an unbalanced checkbook.

    Almost all of the debt has been run up by neoconservative, tax-cutting, military-spending Republican governments. It doesn’t make sense to me to tighten our belts every time there are people who need help only to let them out whenever there are rich people who need to get richer and poor brown people who need to be invaded.

    Maybe once we get through this rough patch and have a renewable-energy-based ecological society we could rethink those ideas, and bring down the debt gradually by sane tax and war policies.