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

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.”


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:

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.