Obama: Only Implement Green Policies that Make Sense in a Time of Crisis


With the exception of African-Americans, the group perhaps most energized by the Barack Obama presidency has been the environmentalists. Yet if most Americans can celebrate along with their black fellow citizens the tremendous achievement of Obama’s accession, the rise of green power may have consequences less widely appreciated.

The new power of the green lobby — including a growing number of investment and venture capital firms — introduces something new to national politics, although already familiar in places such as California and Oregon. Even if you welcome the departure of the Bush team, with its slavish fealty to Big Oil and the Saudis, the new power waged by environmental ideologues could impede the president’s primary goal of restarting our battered economy.

This danger grows out of the environmental agenda widening beyond such things as conservation and preserving public health into a far more obtrusive program that could affect every aspect of economic life. As Teddy Roosevelt, our first great environmentalist president, once remarked, “Every reform movement has a lunatic fringe.”

Today, the “green” fringe sometimes seems to have become the mainstream, as well. While conservationists such as Roosevelt battled to preserve wilderness and clean up the environment, they also cared deeply about boosting productivity as well as living standards for the middle and working classes.

In contrast, the modern environmental movement often seems to take on a different cast, adopting a largely misanthropic view of humans as a “cancer” that needs to be contained. Our “addiction” to economic growth, noted Friends of the Earth founder David Brower, “will destroy us.” Other activists regard population growth as an unalloyed evil, gobbling up resources and increasing planet-heating greenhouse gases.

For such people, the crusade against global warming trumps such things as saving the nation’s industrial heartland, which is largely fueled by coal, oil and natural gas, even if it means the inevitable transfer of additional goods making it to far dirtier places such as India and China. Of course, the current concern over global warming could still prove to be as exaggerated as vintage 1970s predictions of impending global starvation or imminent resource depletion.

Certainly experience suggests we should not be afraid to question policies advocated by the true believers — particularly amid what threatens to be the worst economic downturn in generations. Actions taken now in the name of climate change could have powerful long-term economic implications.

We don’t have to imagine this in the abstract; just look at the economies of two of the greenest states — Oregon and California — whose land use, energy and other environmental policies have helped contribute to higher housing and business costs as well as an exodus of entrepreneurs.

Bill Watkins, head of the forecasting project at the University of California, Santa Barbara, notes that these two environmentally oriented states now have among the nation’s highest unemployment rates, pushing toward 10 percent — ahead of only the Rust Belt disaster areas farther east. In some places, such as central Oregon, it could hit close to 15 percent next year.

Many green activists, along with “smart growth” advocates and new urbanists, laud Oregon’s long-standing strict land use controls as a national role model. Recently imposed land use legislation in California, concocted largely to meet the state’s restrictions on greenhouse gas, has been greeted by them with almost universal hosannas.

Of course, there is nothing wrong at all with trying to curb excessive sprawl or energy use. Promoting a dense urban lifestyle is also commendable, but it is an option that appeals to no more than 10 percent to 20 percent of the population. This is even truer of middle-class people with children, few of whom can hope to live the urban lifestyles of the Kennedys, Gores and other elites — much less also afford one or two country homes to boot.

Tough land use policies are not only hard on middle-class aspirations, but they appear to have played a role in inflating the extreme bubble that affected the California and Oregon real estate markets. Limiting options for where people and business can locate, notes UCSB’s Watkins, tends to drive up the prices of desirable real estate beyond what it would otherwise cost.

Perhaps worst of all, it is not at all certain that a forced march back to the cities would necessarily produce a better, more energy-efficient country. Sprawling and multipolar, with jobs scattered largely on the periphery, most American cities do not lend themselves easily to traditional mass transit; in many cases, this proves no more energy efficient than driving a low-mileage car, using flexible jitney services or, especially, working at home. Big cities also have a potential for generating a “heat island” effect that can result in higher temperatures.

Energy policy represents another field where hewing too close to the green party line could prove problematic. Obama already has endorsed California’s approach as exemplary. And indeed, some things — like imposing tougher mileage standards, stronger conservation measures and more research into cleaner forms of energy — could indeed bring about both short-term and long-term economic benefits.

However, there are also downsides to adopting a California-style single-minded focus on renewable fuels such as solar and wind. Right now, these sources account for far less than 1 percent of our nation’s energy production. Even if doubled or tripled in the next few years, they seem unlikely to reduce our future dependence on foreign oil or boost our overall energy supplies in the short, or even medium, term.

Looking at the experience of these two states, bold claims about vast numbers of green jobs created by legislative fiat seem more about offloading costs to consumers, business and taxpayers than anything else, particularly at today’s current low energy prices. In contrast, new environmentally friendly investments in natural gas, hydro, biomass and nuclear are more likely to find private financing and may work sooner both to reduce dependence on foreign fuels and to keep energy prices down.

The Obama administration certainly should listen to the arguments of environmentalists. But given the clear priority among voters to deal first with the economy, the president should implement only those green policies that make sense at this time of crisis. A sharp break from the Bush approach is certainly welcome, but not in ways that promise more pain to ordinary Americans and our faltering economy.

This article originally appeared at Politico.

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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Take wise precautions

As a LEED Accredited professional, it strikes me that the signal-to-noise ratio revolving around the environmental movement is quite poor at the present moment; it is often nearly impossible to tell what truly reduces waste and produces food or energy.

So many products and services are being restyled as green that one is naturally suspicious of any and all claims. Many labeling systems (including USGBC's LEED program) have come under fire for "greenwashing".

As a skeptic-in-arms with Mr. Kotkin, I must agree that we should take wise precautions when listening to greentalk. Many things that are touted as sustainable simply shift the problem elsewhere, so a consumer thinking he is buying a green product is easily duped. Consumer education is the first priority to overcome this.

It is hoped that President Obama enacts policies that balance environmental awareness with common sense.

Richard Reep
Poolside Studios
Winter Park, FL

Nothing to fear

I agree with epar. The only thing that has changed is that environmentalists are getting a seat at the table, which they were denied during the last administration. Don't worry about "fringe" elements--they have never gotten more than a fraction of what they want, and are used to having to settle for compromises. There are more than enough status quo forces arrayed against the environmentalists. In the end you will see only incremental shifts in a green direction.

Obama strikes me as a non-ideological person and I would be surprised if any genuine "ideologue" winds up in any position of influence in his administration.

I've commented before that I

I've commented before that I think you are greatly exaggerating the influence of the more radical anti-growth environmentalists on Democratic policymaking and leadership circles. But, since I like to keep an open mind, I read your article carefully hoping to find concrete reasons why I should be more worried. The only thing you came up with was how a fellow from Friends of the Earth said that our addiction to economic growth will destroy us. As you yourself recognize, every movement has its fringes, so where is the evidence that Friends of the Earth represents a powerful mainstream organization with the ear of the Democratic Party and the Administration? In trying to find other specific references to groups or individuals, the only thing I could find was vague references to "the green lobby", "the green fringe", "green activists", and "true believers". You mention the Kennedys and Gore, but instead of using them to advance your argument you merely cast aspersions at their elitism (how predictable).

Your cautions against investing in renewable energy and mass transit have a circular, almost tautological, quality to them. With regards to alternative energy, of course if you double or triple a tiny percentage of something you still have a tiny percent. I'm sure if you doubled or tripled the share of automobiles in 1900 relative to horse and buggies we couldn't have an auto-dependent transportation system. But what does that say for medium and long term policy?

Similarly, the reason that "most American cities do not lend themselves easily to traditional mass transit" is because they have been deliberately designed this way. Thus the failure of transit is a self-fulfilling prophecy. Either we can continue building places this way, in which case transit will become less effective, engendering calls from people like you to cut their funding, or we can redesign them to make multi-model transit more effective. The problem lies not with mass transit itself but the cities and towns in which it operates. The Victoria Transport Policy Institute just released a study showing that when transit works well it provide a variety of economic benefits: reduced congestion, lower per capita transit and fuel costs, and increased accessibility to services and amenities for non-drivers, among others.

If there is any liberal environmentalist consensus that emerges in the Obama Administration, it will be centered on the need for investment in transit and renewable energy. The real anti-growth policy is the one we've been enacting for the past 10 years: using borrowed money to build over-priced houses in the desert.

reducing need for foreign oil, cleaner air

I am glad you like natural gas, hydro, and biomass. Nuclear power may be far more important in the future. Our country may be able to obtain a lot of energy from ocean waves and geothermal.

The federal government, state governments, and businesses may reduce the need for foreign oil and help our country have cleaner air by spending a lot more money on buses within cities, buses between cities, passenger rail, and freight rail.

I discuss dealing with the financial crisis and have book recommendations on my profile.

Governments and businesses may buy solar energy panels in bulk and put them on their buildings.

Governments and businesses may obtain a lot more of their energy from wind mills.

My website is http://www.myspace.com/kennethstremsky. I discuss energy issues, military issues, and other topics on it. It has my picture.


Ken Stremsky


Thank you Mr. Kotkin for a fair assessment of the upcoming environmental skirmishes. You are probably the most apolitical voice on the scene today.

thank you

i don't know about apolitical but maybe politically agnostic is best