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.