How Obama went green without going overboard

Barack Obama and Michelle Obama

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The 100-days reviews have been pouring in since Day 95 or so, but as the partisans parse and the bloviators bellow, most have overlooked a startling development—Barack Obama has received unprecedented and nearly unqualified praise from environmentalists.

He’s accomplished this without making the environment an explicit priority—his own 100-days Web site does not include “environment” as one of the nine major issues facing America—and in fact, he’s accomplished this because he hasn’t made the environment an explicit priority.

I’ll explain that below, but first an example of the tenor of praise Obama is receiving from the green crowd.

Former Assistant Secretary of Energy Joseph Romm, who blogs at climateprogress.org, is the only media figure named to U.S. News & World Report’s list of “Top Environment Players.” Romm got there in part because he doesn’t hesitate to blast the most powerful figures in government, media, and activism when he thinks they do wrong by mother nature. For example, a lot of people think Andy Revkin is the nation’s finest environmental reporter, but Romm doesn’t hesitate to throw a haymaker his way: “The lead climate reporter for the New York Times, Andy Revkin, remains stuck in the he-said she-said school of climate journalism that typifies everything wrong with the traditional media’s coverage of the issue of the century.”

Here’s Romm on Barack Obama:

“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,” Romm wrote on Sunday, Day 97. “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.'”

It’s not that Romm agrees with all of Obama’s positions—they differ on oxymoronically-named “clean coal,” for instance. And it’s not that Obama has enjoyed unmitigated success—Congress cut his carbon-cap plan from the budget. It’s just that Obama has taken steps in 100 days that environmentalists have been urging for decades. He’s poured massive funding into alternative energy and alternative transportation, launched high-speed rail, begun the work of declaring carbon dioxide a pollutant, sought a low-emissions zone surrounding our coasts. He’s preserved two million acres of wilderness and a thousand miles of rivers. He’s stopped the federal government’s foot dragging on global warming and put its shoulder into stopping it.

The National Resources Defense Council praises Obama for “moving America in a new direction,” and if that’s not clear enough, for “charting a new course.” The Sierra Club says “change really has come to Washington.” The Daily Green calls Obama’s tenure “the greenest 100 days.”

You’d think the object of such green affection would wear the hue himself, but Obama rarely sounds like his admirers. In his Earth Day speech in Newton, Iowa—on Day 93—”the Green FDR” uttered 3,500 words without using the word “green” as a freestanding adjective. He is the polar opposite of recent presidents who paid lip service to the environment while, at best, neglecting it or, at worst, laying waste to it. Obama skips the lip service but wracks up environmental accomplishments. And he does so largely by linking the environment to other irresistable causes.

Even the staunchest polluter or starchiest conservative can scarcely oppose energy independence and economic recovery.

On Earth Day, the White House released not a “Vision for the Environment” but a “Vision for Clean Energy Economy.” Its eight tenets include: creating new jobs, promoting competitiveness, investing in technology, breaking dependence on oil, producing more energy at home, promoting efficiency… Can you see the conservatives throwing up their hands? How do you fight this stuff?… At number seven comes a purely environmental goal, although cloaked in somewhat economic language—”closing the carbon pollution loophole”—and finally, at number eight, an appeal to the shopping class: “protecting American consumers.”

What could be more capitalist than reinvigorating the labor market and protecting competition? More conservative than efficiency? More populist than consumer protection? Anyone who sees the symbolic value of dumping tea in Boston Harbor has to admit the practical virtue of independence from foreign oil. The environment may be the cart, but Obama has it tied behind horses everyone wants to win: energy independence and the economy. That’s a strategy that eluded Al Gore.

You can see cart and horses clearly enough in Obama’s speech to both houses of Congress on Feb. 25, Day 37:

“It begins with energy,” Obama said. “We know the country that harnesses the power of clean, renewable energy will lead the 21st century. And yet, it is China that has launched the largest effort in history to make their economy energy efficient. We invented solar technology, but we’ve fallen behind countries like Germany and Japan in producing it. New plug-in hybrids roll off our assembly lines, but they will run on batteries made in Korea.”

There’s a third horse in the president’s team: science. Obama’s call for scientific innovation—epitomized by the appointment of Nobel Prize winner Steven Chu to the helm of the Energy Department—evokes the America that tooled up to defeat Hitler, the yes-we-can America that left footprints on the moon. Monday, at Day 98, Obama gave his first major address on science to the National Academies of Science. He promised investment in research and development that will exceed the level that led to those lunar footprints— more than 3 percent of gross domestic product.

“Just think what this will allow us to accomplish: solar cells as cheap as paint; green buildings that produce all the energy they consume; learning software as effective as a personal tutor; prosthetics so advanced that you could play the piano again; an expansion of the frontiers of human knowledge about ourselves and world the around us. We can do this.”

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