The Green FDR: Obama’s first 100 days make — and may remake — history

The media just keeps missing — or messing up — the story of the century.

Future historians will inevitably judge all 21st-century presidents on just two issues:  global warming and the clean energy transition. If the world doesn’t stop catastrophic climate change — Hell and High Water — then all Presidents, indeed, all of us, will be seen as failures and rightfully so.

How else could future generations judge us if the U.S. and the world stay anywhere near our current emissions path, warm most of the inland United States 10 to 15°F by century’s end, with sea levels 3 to 7 feet higher, rising perhaps an inch or two a year, with the Southwest from Kansas to California a permanent dust bowl, and much of the ocean a hot, acidic dead zone — impacts that could be irreversible for 1,000 years if we don’t reverse emissions soon and sharply.  This will require an unbroken — and indeed escalating — response by our political leadership throughout this century.  The same is true for the very important, but still secondary, issue of avoiding the worst impacts of peak oil.

In that sense, what team Obama has accomplished in its first 100 days is nothing less than an unprecedented reversal of decades of unsustainable national policy forced down the throat of the American public by conservatives.  While I will present a longer list below — and welcome your additions — three game-changing accomplishments stand out:

  1. Green StimulusProgressives, Obama keep promise to jumpstart clean energy, economy “” conservatives keep promise to jumpstop the future
  2. Sustainable BudgetThe first sustainable budget in U.S. history.
  3. Regulatory breakthroughEPA finds carbon pollution a serious danger to Americans’ health and welfare requiring regulation

Obama has clearly demonstrated he has a serious chance to be the first President since FDR to remake the country through his positive vision.  Indeed, if Obama is a two-term president, if he achieves even half of what he has set out to, he will likely be remembered as “the green FDR.”

As an interesting side note, President Reagan, who is held in some esteem with historians these days, will almost certainly be relegated to a second-tier, if not third-tier, president by the painful dual realities of global warming and peak oil.  After all, it was Ronald Reagan who put conservatives strongly and permanently on the pro-pollution, anti-efficiency, anti-clean-energy side, where they remain today (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” and “Hill conservatives reject all 3 climate strategies and embrace Rush Limbaugh“).  It is Reagan, more than anyone else, who put the GOP on the self-destructively wrong side of scientific reality (though Newt Gingrich is a close second).

Since the establishment media doesn’t get global warming — seeing it mostly through the lens of their standard drama- and personality-driven coverage focused on the ephemeral (did Obama “blink” on earmarks, Newt Gingrich faces off vs. Al Gore ) — and since establishment historians almost by definition focus on the past, the overwhelming majority of “first 100 days” articles you will read are irrelevant exercises in navelgazing.  I won’t even bother linking to or debunking the spate of stories in today’s New York Times or Washington Post Sunday sections — the only one worth reading is, not surprisingly, Tom Friedman’s.

These myopic stories all befit an industry so shortsighted it couldn’t even even understand the implications for its own future of the Internet revolution it was reporting on.  As but one of many painful examples, here is Joe Klein writing in the normally green-savvy Time, “Sizing Up Obama’s First 100 Days“:

The fate of Obama’s first year in office, if not his Administration, will probably be determined by the way he handles four distinct challenges “” two in foreign policy and two domestically….

And that’s the second domestic challenge: the realization that Congress will not give Obama everything he wants. Aides say the President’s moments of frustration almost always have to do with Congress. “We know that not every wagon makes it across the frontier,” says a top Obama adviser. “But we’re not willing to decide yet which wagons are going to make it and which aren’t.” In fact, that decision seems more and more apparent: Congress is unlikely to pass the linchpin of Obama’s alternative-energy initiative “” a cap-and-trade program for carbon emissions to combat global warming and tilt the market toward energy independence but that would also raise energy prices in the midst of a recession.

“The wagon that needs to get through is health care,” says a second Obama adviser, picking up the metaphor.

Note the utter lack of knowledge or interest in the substance of the global warming problem.  Note the backwards view of the core issue:  Cap-and-trade is not the linchpin of Obama’s alternative energy initiative — it is alternative energy that is the linchpin of Obama’s effort to avert catastrophic global warming.

Note that Klein, another status-quo establishment journalist like David Broder and Evan Thomas, parrots the standard conservative talking point that Obama wants to “raise energy prices in the midst of a recession,” when the cap doesn’t even kick in until 2012.  Seriously guys, can you think for yourselves?

Note the selective quoting meant to imply that Obama is ready to throw a cap-and-trade overboard to save health care, when anybody who actually listens to any of Obama’s major speeches would know how nonsensical that view is — see In today’s big economic speech, Obama reaffirms his commitment to a clean energy economy and strong climate bill: “The only way to truly spark this transformation is through a gradual, market-based cap on carbon pollution”

Obama gets global warming.  The media doesn’t.

And I’d be happy to take a bet with Klein or anyone else that Congress will pass a cap-and-trade bill before the 2010 mid-term election.

Anyway, let’s move from the out-of-touch chattering class to a class in green leadership.  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?

Here is a partial list of what Obama has achieved in his first 100 days — please feel free to add others — laying the groundwork for him becoming the Green FDR:

  1. Obama 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 began the process of dramatically increasing 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).
  3. He appointed a first-rate Cabinet and then unleashed them 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”).
  4. In every single major speech, he has focused on the urgent need for the clean energy transition, for a price for carbon (cap-and-trade and “closing the carbon loophole”), and the unsustainability of our current economic system (see Obama gets the Ponzi scheme: “The choice we face is not between saving our environment and saving our economy. The choice we face is between prosperity and decline.”)
  5. 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“).  He also enacted into law $2 billion in grants and loans for R&D into advanced vehicle batteries, a tenfold increase over current funding.  Plug-ins and electric cars, 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.
  6. He signed into law a massive investment in mass transit and train travel — and laid out an aggressive vision for a high-speed rail network. The 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.
  7. 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“).
  8. 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. He also made what may be his most important appointment, Jon Wellinghoff for Energy Commission Chief, who understands the future is not filled with new coal and nuclear plants (see “We may not need any, ever”), and who has already begun jumpstarting the new, green grid (“Huge ‘Green Power Express’ wind grid gains federal rate incentives“).
  9. 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.
  10. 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 Reagan slashed federal efficiency and renewables investments 80% to 90%, which launched decades of vehement ideological opposition to clean tech 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“).
  11. He put forward, the first sustainable budget in U.S. history, one that invests in clean energy, included cap-and-trade revenue, and seeks repeal of fossil industry subsidies.  Yes, he made a serious tactical mistake by tentatively pursuing the possibility of trying to pass a climate bill through reconciliation, which allowed conservatives to score some meaningless tactical political victories and thereby confuse the media into thinking Obama was himself not serious about this issue (see George Stephanopoulos, Nate Silver, and Marc Ambinder all seem confused about global warming and budget politics and Obama says his energy plan and cap-and-trade “will be authorized” even if it’s not in the budget “and I will sign it” “” Washington Post confused. In fact his budget and every thing he has done as president shows the reverse is true, that he understands the fate of his presidency and the health and well-being of the American public rests on his success in passing serious energy and climate legislation.

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.

Of course, it’s entirely possible that this history-making first 100 days won’t remake history. It’s more than possible that we won’t stop catastrophic warming. But if we don’t stop the 100s of years of misery, of Hell and High Water,” 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“) “” because conservative in both chambers refuse to conserve anything, including a livable climate, and willingly sacrificed the health and well-being of the next 50 generations of Americans for their ideology.

But even if we fail to stop the catastrophe, there is no escape from Americans, indeed, all humans, ultimately having a low-carbon, low-oil, low-water low-natural-capital lifestyle.  And thus the vast majority of Obama’s initiatives will be recognized by future generations and future historians as the point at which the U.S. government embraced the inevitable and started down the sustainable path that presidents either chose to embrace voluntarily in time to avoid the worst impacts or were forced to embraced by the collapse of the global Ponzi scheme.

Obama is the first president in history to articulate both the why and how of the sustainable vision — and to actively, indeed aggressively, pursue its enactment.  And that is why he is likely to be remembered as the green FDR.

19 Responses to The Green FDR: Obama’s first 100 days make — and may remake — history

  1. ecostew says:

    There is also re-assessing oil shale:

  2. oxnardprof says:

    Thank you, Joe for this summarization. I think that one action point readers of this blog can take from this post is a letters submission to a local paper, providing assessment of President Obama’s 100 days. I agree that I see signs of action on the President’s part that give me some hope. I don’t know if my letters will be published, but I urge a letter-writing campaign to newspapers and to your representatives to spell out support for agressive Federal action on this issue.

    Thank you for the blog, which has become ‘indispensible’ for me.

  3. ecostew says:

    Oil and gas leases in fragile areas are being cancelled:

  4. ecostew says:

    And EPA/CWA climate change was also recently discussed here:

  5. David Freeman says:

    Oxnardprof is right that we should write letters to local papers with our assessment of Obama’s first hundred days but don’t let the fear that your letter might not be published prevent you from acting.

    My experience says that if I keep it brief and write clearly, small local papers will print me every time. If I don’t keep it brief, they sometimes ask me to rewrite and submit as a guest column. For small papers this is free material to fill their pages!

    You might want to coordinate with some friends and each submit a separate letter supporting a different aspect of Obama’s successful first hundred days. That way you get around the letter length limit, and get multiple points acrosswithout overlap.

    I’ve never succeeded in getting a letter published in The NY Times, Washington Post or USA Today but I keep trying. Lots of letters to the small papers though may have as much or more impact.

  6. Yuebing says:

    Thankyou JR for summarizing what is an amazing 180 degree turn in federal policy.

    During the 2nd Dark Age (2000 – 2008) state and local efforts to develop climate change response plans were severely limited by a federal hostility towards efficiency and sustainable energy supplies. Trying to make things happen in most places was difficult at best.

    Here we are, April 2009, and the messsage to all you state, local, and NGO players is “move out smartly”. We have a green light with this administration–turn up the heat! Get those building codes fixed, demand green electrons, and death to the SUV.

  7. ecostew says:

    And EPA/mountain top removal was discussed here:

  8. Susan says:

    Please also include your local legislators (town/city/state) in the letter writing campaign. They pay the most attention to paper letters. Some of them are already informed and need your support.

  9. KT says:

    Good to see that NOAA is using political science to make decisions on fisheries. OOOPS this is not sustainable–sorry, wrong blog! Where is Friedman when you need him?

    April 16, 2009, 4:00 a.m.

    Political Science
    Despite his protestations, Obama’s science policy is driven by raw politics.

    By David Freddoso

    One of the most significant promises that President Obama made when he came into office was that science, not politics, would drive his administration’s policies. “We will restore science to its rightful place,” Obama said, and he has repeated this in various ways on various occasions. Although he famously used this pledge to make his case for scientific research that destroys human embryos, he has most often invoked it in the context of his environmental beliefs.

    The promise has come with an unmistakable air of superiority and a hint of ridicule for his predecessor. No longer would knuckle-dragging, faith-based government officials ignore science, expecting Christ’s return to solve the problem of human damage to the environment. In an Obama administration, decisions would be based on science, not politics or ideology.

    To make clear his serious intentions, Obama chose marine biologist Jane Lubchenco to head the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the federal government agency charged with mapping the oceans and conducting and funding a broad range of climate-related scientific research. Lubchenco’s selection cheered environmentalists concerned about the human role in climate change.

    “Scientific knowledge should inform decision-making,” Lubchenco said at her April 9 swearing-in ceremony. “Scientists have an obligation to communicate . . . that management and policy decisions should focus on the common good and the long-term.”

    But before this ceremony even took place, Obama’s administration had already begun cutting corners on its “science-based” rhetoric. Lubchenco’s very first regulatory decision in office, announced April 6, was to abandon, at least for now, her agency’s legally mandated goal to save certain New England fish-stocks. This decision was made with no scientific justification, but rather for political and economic reasons.

    The Bush administration had developed a plan to end overfishing and replenish fish-stocks off the coasts of New England. The new regulations, which were to take effect this year, satisfied two major goals mandated under federal law: to replenish ten depleted stocks of New England fish by 2014, and to replenish seven other stocks on longer timeframes that stretch out to 2019 and beyond. Many of the stocks are not currently on pace to meet the deadlines set by the Stevens-Manguson Act, so the proposed regulations would have been onerous, costing the fishing industry as much as $35 million annually — about one-fifth of its total revenues.

    But last week, Lubchenco drastically scaled back the Bush administration rules in order to help the fishing industry. Whether one agrees or disagrees with her decision, science is not driving it; as NOAA spokeswoman Maggie Mooney-Seus said, “the science is still the same.” Lubchenco’s downscaled rules, which will cost fishermen a mere $17.4 million per year, preserve short-term conservation goals but punt on long-term measures. They kick down the road the plans that scientists had proposed to rebuild stocks of pollock, witch flounder, Georges Bank winter flounder, and Northern windowpane.

    The official NOAA explanation, contained in an economic analysis, is that the changes “are necessary to mitigate impacts on the fishing industry to the extent practicable, without fatally jeopardizing the likelihood that overfished multispecies stocks will achieve their rebuilding objectives.” Obscured by all the twenty-dollar words is the fact that Obama’s purportedly science-driven administration is overriding scientists for political reasons — in part because of the loud protestations of powerful members of Congress such as Rep. Barney Frank (D., Mass.).

    To be sure, the curtailment of these regulations is probably a good idea. Fishermen and their families are still more important than fish, even in a purportedly “science-driven” administration. And someone, someday, will probably develop a plan that rebuilds these populations. The industry depends on it in the long run.

    But if the new NOAA policy is any indication, Obama’s “science first” rhetoric contains far more bark than bite — and even if he would never admit it, he is far less different from Bush than he would have us believe. He meant literally his declaration that “promoting science is about . . . listening to what [scientists] tell us, even when it’s inconvenient — especially when it’s inconvenient.” He will listen to the scientists, but that does not mean that his administration will actually do what they recommend when politics dictates otherwise.

    — David Freddoso is an NRO staff reporter and author of The Case Against Barack Obama.

  10. PaulK says:

    FDR did a lot of wonderful things, but not all at once. Some of them worked, some of them didn’t. A major one of them was declared unconstitutional.

    Taking cap and trade out of this years budget will not delay reaching CO2 450 ppm stabilization. Without cap and trade it is likely CO2 will continue to increase +/- 2 ppm/yr, reaching 450 ppm by or soon after 2035. Our sources for and usage of energy will be vastly changed for the better by 2035 even if cap and trade never happens.

    There has just been an historic appropriation for replacing fossil fuel. Shouldn’t we be concentrating on maximizing deployment of existing technologies and efficiencies? The stimulus took the cap off the 30% tax credit for some of them.

    The best technology ready for deployment is geothermal, which is a ground temperature fed electric heat pump system. It eliminates the need for natural gas or heating oil in the winter and greatly reduces air conditioning load in the summer. Geothermal is the most cost effective alternative technology. The in ground thermal component can be install almost anywhere including tight urban spaces. It is very affordable, especially in new construction, and has a pay back time short enough to make it a sound economic decision.

    Recent polling suggests the appeal to climate catastrophe is ineffective. How much the temperature rises by 2035 is really anyone’s guess. Temperature and CO2 do not, after all, walk in lock step. The best climatologists say we are in a period of stability that could continue for up to thirty years. They also say it could then rise even more rapidly than in the post 1975 period. It is possible that by 2035 only a few years will have been above the 2005 anomaly.

  11. Gail says:

    Well, David Freddoso, this looks like what is becoming a familiar strategy that was promised during the campaign – compromise, and accomplish something!
    No surprises here. Take your phony indignation and drag your knuckles somewhere else.

    from savingseafood dot org

    FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: April 8, 2009

    CONTACT: Brigid O’Rourke, 617-565-8252

    BOSTON – Senators John Kerry and Edward Kennedy, and Congressmen Barney Frank and John Tierney today released the following statements on the decision by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to commit $16 million to assist the Northeast Fishing Industry in the wake of the recently announced plan for managing New England groundfish stocks.

    Earlierthis week, NOAA announced an interim management plan that will govern the New England groundfishery for the fishing year thatbegins on May 1. While the interim plan – which was issued by recently appointed NOAA Administration Jane Lubchenco – imposes fewer restrictions on fishing than the initial proposal that was made in the final days of the Bush Administration, the plan does call for a reduction of 18 percent in Days at Sea, along with certain other restrictions. It is estimated that the plan will reduce fishing income in the region by at least 9 percent.

    The new funding will be used to enhance current research projects that allow both scientists and industry to improve surveys of fish stocks. The funding will also be used to develop data reporting and fishery monitoring systems to better monitor fishing efforts, document catches and track permit transfers.

    “This relief will help cushion the blow of the new regulatory burdens on our fishermen. This wasn’t easy. I am deeply grateful to Dr. Lubchencoand NOAA for meeting with us, listening to us, developing a compromise and giving our fishing industry the financial help it desperately needs. We must continue to work on long-term solutions that create sustainable fisheries while maintaining our fishing heritage,” said Senator JohnKerry.

    “ Massachusetts fishing families have been part of the fabric of our Commonwealth since its earliest days, and now more than any other time, the industry is confronting serious threats.” said Senator Kennedy. “Our fishermen deserve the very best from the federal government, and I will continue to work with Senator Kerry and the members of our Congressional Delegation to ensure the industryremains a part of our culture and heritage. This funding is a step in the right direction.”

    ”As with the interim rule, there is good news and bad news here. The good news is that the agency is making available funds that are aimed at helping the New England fishing industry, and I appreciate Dr. Lubchenco’s decision to release the funds. The bad news is that the money will go primarily for research projects that may be useful in the long run, but which won’t provide much in the way of direct, short-term economic benefits to fishermen who have to cut back further on how much they can fish. I am hopeful that the Obama Administration, in keeping with its views on the importance of offering financial help to those who are struggling in the current economic downturn, will identify additional sources of funds to help the industry. I will be consulting with my Congressional colleagues on the best options for achieving that goal, and continuing to push forimprovements in the underlying fishing laws that will help promote sustainable fish stocks and sustainable fishing communities,” said Congressman Barney Frank.

    “Iam hopeful that this funding will provide some assistance for our fishing communities during this time of extreme economic hardship. I stand committed with my congressional colleagues to address the more immediate needs of the industry and, at the same time, will continue working together with fishermen and Dr. Lubchenco to further address the impact of the new regulations,”said Congressman John F. Tierney (D-MA).

    NOAA also announced that it would work with local fishermen and communities to disseminate information about various grant and assistance program opportunities.

  12. David says:

    Although it is not directly related to climate science, I personally include the Omnibus Public Lands Management Act is my list of Obama’s environmental accomplishments.

    Construction of new coal plants is what I’m most worried about; that industry is still very powerful. I hope that Obama will stand up for the future, though it is difficult in this economic situation.

  13. Rod B says:

    Your reporting of La-La Land through your rose colored glasses is impressive. So much spin; so little space… Sustainable budget?? Only for those that couldn’t pass math in Nirvana.

  14. What is the EPA URL for replying to the EPA ruling?

  15. Danielle J. Burrows says:

    This Information is INCREDIBAL! i am doing a project on global warming, i am only 11 but i was hoping that you could contact me. Thanks