Obama, Fight The Green Agenda


In his remarkable rise to power, President Barack Obama has overcome some of the country's most formidable politicians – from the Bushes and the Clintons to John McCain. But he may have more trouble coping with a colleague he professes to admire: former Vice President Al Gore.

To date, motivations from sweet reason to hard-headed accommodation have defined Obama's Cabinet choices, most notably in such areas as defense and finance. Oddly enough, though, his choices on the environmental front are almost entirely Gore-ite in nature. Obama's green team, for example, includes longtime Gore acolyte Carol Browner as climate and energy czar, physicist Steven Chu as energy secretary and, perhaps most alarmingly, John Holdren as science adviser.

These individuals are not old-style conservationists focused on cleaning up the air and water or protecting and expanding natural areas. They represent a more authoritarian and apocalyptic strain of true believers who see in environmental issues – mainly, global warming – a license to push a radical agenda irrespective of its effects on our economy, our society or even our dependence on foreign energy.

We should not underestimate the power of these extreme greens. They can count on the media to cover climate and other green issues with all the impartiality of the Soviet-era Pravda. Stories that buttress the notion of man-made global warming – like reports of long-term warming in Antarctica – receive lavish attention in The New York Times and on Yahoo!.

Meanwhile, other reports, such as new NASA studies indicating cooling sea temperatures since 2003, or the implications of two unusually cool winters, are relegated to the mostly conservative blogosphere.

I am no scientist. For all I know, both sides are lying or exaggerating. However, we do need to take history into account. Scientists have not been and are not immune to hysteria or groupthink, particularly when taking the "correct" view means a lush supply of cash from foundations and governmental labs. Nor is "consensus," however constructed, always right.

In fact, lockstep "official" science is often very wrong – from the pre-Copernican view of the solar system, to the decades spent ridiculing the now undisputed reality that continents drift over time, to eugenics or even, back in the 1970s, concern over "global cooling."

The past also suggests we should be particularly leery of purveyors of impending natural apocalypse. Holdren, the new science czar, for example, is a longtime disciple of the largely discredited neo-Malthusian Paul Ehrlich, who in the early '80s bluntly predicted that global mass starvation was imminent and that critical metals would suffer severe shortages. Neither calamity has occurred – even as both global population and economic activity have surged dramatically.

Obama may also want to consider the consequences of following the catastrophists. Supporting green causes might have been useful for bludgeoning George Bush and for raising cash over the Internet from affluent urban professionals. But now these environmentalists could obstruct his program for creating broad economic recovery and meeting the nation's energy challenges – and they could even slow his party's quest to secure a permanent electoral majority.

For one thing, the economic crisis has shifted the public's attention away from environmental issues. Recessions may reduce greenhouse gases and halt development, but they terrify voters and shift their priorities. A recent Pew survey of 20 top priorities for 2009 shows the public places a growing emphasis on strengthening the economy and particularly creating jobs, each cited by over 80% of respondents.

In contrast, concern over the environment has dropped to 41% – down from 57% in 2007. Global warming ranked dead last; 30% of respondents named it a priority, a figure down from 38% just two years ago.

Green activists might force the administration to eschew some of the tools that could best restore the economy. For example, they often oppose expenditures that drive industrial and agricultural growth – investments in ports, roads, bridges and even freight rail – which some see as greenhouse gas boosters. With the likes of Browner, Chu and Holdren in charge – no matter what Congress's intentions are – an emboldened regulatory apparatus could use their power to slow, and even stop, many infrastructure improvements.

At the same time, greens can be expected to line up with the information-age lobby, whose notion of stimulus focuses largely on universities, health care, arts, culture and media. This "post-industrial strategy," notes author Michael Lind, may be fine for Manhattan and San Francisco, but it's not so appealing in Michigan, Ohio, Appalachia or the Great Plains.

All this green-blessed employment would likely produce precious few well-paying, long-term, private-sector jobs for middle- or working-class Americans. Obama should understand, as much as anyone, that the votes that won him the presidency came largely from suburban voters who are concerned about their economic futures.

Of course, suburbanites care about the environment too, but they would rather see practical steps to clean up air and water quality and expand public open space. In contrast, the greenocrats are generally hostile to cars and single-family homes – the suburbs themselves. In other words, they largely detest many of the very things middle-class voters cherish.

Perhaps nowhere will this green agenda create more potential problems than in the energy arena. I have long held that conservation should be encouraged in every reasonable way possible. However, it is clearly fanciful to believe that solar, wind and other renewables can supply the bulk of the new power we need now to, as President Obama put it, "fuel our cars and run our factories" – much less meet the needs of the 100 million or more American who will be online by 2050.

Just look at the numbers. According to the latest (2007) figures from the Energy Information Agency, renewable energy accounts for less than 7% of U.S. consumption – and almost all of that is derived from burning wood and waste and hydroelectric power. Nuclear generation accounts for over 8%, while fossil fuels meet nearly 85% of America's energy needs. On the other hand, wind and solar power, which the new president has promised to "harness," account for just 0.39% of total American energy.

Even doubling renewables in the next few years – itself an expensive and difficult goal – would do relatively little to meet the nation's demand for energy. In this light, the incoming energy secretary's strong antipathy to fossil fuels – particularly coal, which he once described as his "worst nightmare" – coupled with his lack of enthusiasm for nuclear power, which is collectively the source of over 93% of U.S. energy, seems a bit problematic.

We can only solve America's energy needs by blending a variety of alternative solutions – renewables, conservation, nuclear – with fossil fuel-based energy. This approach, which would vary by region, would also help revive manufacturing, agriculture and other productive industries. A renewables-only approach, in contrast, would impose very high prices and require massive subsidization, leading to greater dependence on overseas energy and also, perhaps, to a permanently shrunken economy.

These challenges, along with recent shifts in the public's priorities, suggest that the president may need to distance himself from his extreme green advisers – or, somehow, get them to toe a more sensible line.

In his new job, President Obama must confront many dangerous ideologues from organizations like Hamas and al-Qaida. His political future, however, may ultimately hinge on how he handles the dogmatic ideologues he has now lifted to the highest levels of our government.

This article originally appeared at Forbes.

Joel Kotkin is executive editor of NewGeography.com and is a presidential fellow in urban futures at Chapman University. He is author of The City: A Global History and is finishing a book on the American future.

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Egregious mischaracterization

Those of us who have contributed to environmental causes for years are surprised to suddenly find out that we are enabling a dangerously powerful elite that wants to destroy the American way of life. It would be amusing if so many people weren't adopting this silly narrative as their version of reality. It's to be expected from the right wing, but when relative moderates like Mr. Kotkin show signs of getting on that bandwagon I start to worry.

At best, environmentalists have been a moderating force in our society. For most of the last 30 years, they have been on the outside of government, spending most of their time fighting to preserve the gains made in the 1970s in the areas of clean air, clean water, land conservation, and species protection. These “radical notions” of the day are all things that people take for granted now, but a lot of those gains would have been lost if not for environmentalists' savvy advocacy and willingness to resort to the courts. The struggle was particularly acute during the Bush II administration, with its relentless efforts to nullify laws through abuse of the regulation-making process. You try to draw distinctions between those “reasonable” environmentalists who fought the good fight to give us relatively clean air and water and those who are advocating for policy in response to global warming, but the latter are also reasonable people. When faced with a problem, reasonable people try to find solutions, not ignore the problem, try to cover it up, or attack the bearer of unwelcome news. But if you study history, you will find that every advance in environmental protection was preceded by cries of “that’s not really a problem,” “doing something about it would destroy our economy/property rights/cherished freedoms/traditions,” “you guys have a communist/Marxist/socialist/Nazi agenda,” and “you want us all to go back to living in caves.” So it is with global warming. So how about this—instead of preemptive attacks on these new agency heads, listen to the actual policy recommendations they come up with, and then critique those.

None of us are qualified to judge the science behind global warming, but it’s safe to say that scientific inquiry has improved immensely since the time of Copernicus (were pre-Copernican consensus-setters really even scientists?). Even since the 1970s, with the accumulation of knowledge and data over time and advances in computing power, science has advanced significantly (and the concept of “ecosystem” had barely been invented then). So I don’t find the comparisons of global warming to the miscalculations of the past particularly comforting. If the consensus among today’s scientists is that global warming is real and caused by human activity, it behooves us to address the issue as best we can rather than spend time accusing environmentalists of having hidden authoritarian agendas and insinuating that scientists are pimping themselves for grant money. Yes, there’s a possibility that global warming may turn out to be much ado about nothing. I certainly hope so.

Forgive me if I don't find it dangerous in the least that a few card-carrying environmentalists become agency heads in the Obama administration. Were there any in the Bush or Reagan administrations? To me, this looks like bringing balance back into federal policy. Remember, Al Gore himself was Vice President. If he couldn't, or wouldn't, implement his dangerous green agenda in that position, what do we have to fear from a few agency heads? Are business interests and other status quo forces suddenly rendered impotent by this? Believe me, they will stand up for themselves, just like they have been all along.

your comments

thank you for your thoughtful response.

my problem does not lie with the basic premise of environmental protection but on how environmentalism has morphed into an increasingly intolerant, well-funded orthodoxy.

when i hear people say 'the debate is over', and yet i know it isn't. this sends my natural skepticism in motion.

of course, i am interested in the actual proposals that will come out. sadly in california we can see some possible outlines in the new Jerry Brown jihad. my interest is in fostering low energy consuming, low commute time commuunities for lots of reasons- including those of the environment but more so for the family and social ties.

for example, it seems to me global warming activists are using their theology to attack suburbs, as opposed to finding out how to improve them. they believe in mass transit solutions where more flexible solutions (telecommuting, jitneys) could be more appropriate. and you don't have to be too perceptive to see that much of the 'green' agenda in places like Monterey County are very much about preserving the preferred lifestyle of the rich even at the expense of working class people in places like Salinas.

i am particularly worried about holgren due to his association with ehrlich, who is really a bit over the top. it seems to me a new coalition- urban land owners, transit builders, government funded university people - all have an interest that has much to do with empowering themselves than protecting the environment as experienced by most people.

as i stated, i did not support the bush energy program and feel conservation is a primary imperative. but i can not see how solar and wind can do mush to offset our dependence on foreign energy in the short or even medium term.

if so called moderates like me do not raise these issues, then we get stuck in the polarized debate that led first to bush and may now see an equally flawed alternative in the current administration.


Thanks Joel

Carol Browner, Obama's new Energy Czarina, and her coziness with Socialist International does not exactly inspire confidence. Al Gore has become a caricature in his strident role as the climate-is-falling doomsayer (and profiteer).

Hopefully, president Obama can put a new face on the debate by formulating and communicating the need for strong, measured energy solutions that can help elevate a struggling economy. Because many people in this country fear the economy will be sacrificed at the altar of the green agenda, and I don't think it's an entirely irrational fear. His leadership can hopefully pull the heel-draggers from both sides out of their entrenchments.

A taxpayer funded stimulus to promote renewable energy is one thing, but it's entirely another when the stimulus devolves into an umbilical cord dependent on the taxpayer for industry viability.

Thanks Joel, as usual, for interjecting reason into the debate.

While I appreciate much of

While I appreciate much of what you say, there are portions that I find frustrating.

Primarily, I have trouble with the assumption that as long as global warming isn't happening, then we should stay the current course. I agree with scientists on either side of the debate - that there's evidence for and against global warming - but I have major trouble with the direction we're heading in.

Lets say that all this global warming is just a bunch of cruft. That it isn't happening at all. Does that mean it is ok for us to continue our current pattern of ultra-over-consuming? And subjugating the third-world for our own personal benefit?

For those who may think that I'm being extremist here, please just wrestle yourself out of your comfort zone for a minute and wake up. Whether the global warming thing is going to be a passing trend or a long-term disaster doesn't matter. What does matter is that the global warming thing has given us a loud and clear signal that our culture of excess and over-consuming is not leading us in a good direction.

my take

i appreciate your thoughtful comments

frankly i also believe- as i stated- that conservation is priority and i also have argued that consumption is no solution, particularly in us, for our economic problems.

my real fear, which i will be addressing soon,is that the extremist, over-exagerated and very much intolerant tone of global warming crowd will backfire against the very things i consider priorities, like expanding telecommuting, fuel efficient cars, conservation, and making a real dent on mideast oil dependency (not possible through just non-renewables)

the fear i have is that as we wake up four years from now and most people think what the greens want is based on a crock, they will turn away from reasonable change. the 70s saw this before, and it led to some very nasty reagan environmental policies.


I think that your

I think that your characterization of the political alliance behind Obama is wrong. Most Greens who are "in the pocket of the information lobby" and supported Obama are not opposing a stimulus package. By and large, these same people who care about the environment also want to see a stimulus package that includes transit spending and renewable energy investment. What they oppose is spending focusing on auto-centric transportation. In fact, Al Gore wrote on Op-Ed in the NYT on November 2008 that linked the need for green energy infrastructure to the need for a Keynesian-style economic stimulus. Obama has made this connection frequently in his speeches and policy statements. And while there are of course fringes in the environmental movement that oppose any signs of industrialization, there is no evidence that Obama or his advisers share these views. I think your fear is misplaced.

This gets to the larger false neo-industrial/post-industrial dichotomy that you echo from Lind. Rather than re-hash my argument, see the comments of mine and others under his essay.

As a parting shot, because I can't help myself: Like you I'm not a scientist, but maybe the reason that the sea is cooling is because the glacial ice in the sea is melting...

thank you

A great overview of the issues we face on the environmental front.

It seems the new president has decided to placate a significant chunk of his voting block at the expense of reasoned process.

When it comes to "dangerous idealogues" you have to go back to Chairman Mao to find folks as worked up about their mission as some of today's environmental zealots.

It is safe to say that today's business stress was not caused by inappropriate use of energy resources. To squeeze business and society further at this time with regulatory shackles will only delay a recovery.

God help us as we try to help ourselves.


the economy and the environment

Thanks Joel Kotkin.

I hope people will check out Congress for the New Urbanism http://www.cnu.org. I agree with them that we need to make our cities more walker friendly. If we make our cities more walker friendly, we may use less foreign oil, have cleaner air, reduce obesity, and reduce health care costs.

The less foreign oil our country has to use the more money that individuals and businesses may have to spend in our country for other things.

The federal government, state governments, and businesses should spend a lot more money on buses within cities, buses between cities, passenger rail, and freight rail. Our country may be able to reduce significantly the amount of oil used to transport goods if more goods are transported by freight rail. If people have an easier time getting to jobs and from jobs via buses, they may have less need for food stamps and Medicaid. If families have less need for 2nd cars and 3rd cars, they could save money on gas, auto insurance, auto maintenance, and other auto related costs which could give them more money for other things. If the air is cleaner, fewer children and adults may have asthma attacks and have to go to emergency rooms. Fewer parents may lose time from work to take care of sick children.

http://www.evolutionshift.com has discussed what future cars may be like. Our governments and businesses should be doing more to encourage the production of electric powered cars and electric powered cars that have fuel as a backup power source.

Governments and businesses may want to buy solar panels in bulk and installations in bulk of solar panels for their offices and the homes of employees to reduce their need for oil. Employees could help pay for the costs of the solar panels.

Many people living in neighborhoods may want to join together and buy wind mills.

Many businesses may want to join together and buy wind mills.

Our country may want to build many solar/wind towers. I hope people will check out http://www.solarmissiontechnologies.com/FAQs.htm

Our country may want to obtain more energy from ocean waves. I hope people will check out http://ocsenergy.anl.gov/guide/wave/index.cfm

Governments and businesses in our country and other countries should work together better to figure out ways to reduce pollution caused by coal. The United States of America has a great deal of coal and may have to use coal for many more years.

Our country may have to build many more nuclear fission power plants. We may need to store nuclear waste in many different parts of the country. We need to care about how nuclear waste is transported. We need to care about nuclear power plant safety and terrorism dealing with nuclear power plants.

Companies that make products in our country may cause less air pollution, water pollution, and land pollution on our planet than companies that make products in China. The greater the distance an item travels from place of production to final destination the more water pollution and other types of pollution that may take place. I discuss manufacturing on my profile.

My website is http://www.myspace.com/kennethstremsky


Ken Stremsky