It's Not Easy Being Green In The US


When you travel through America, you move against a tide of excess. SUVs cram the interstates, food is brought to your table on paper and plastic, recycling is reserved for "liberal elites" and even San Francisco can barely manage coffee in ceramic cups. While climate change has become a more credible concern since 2004, it remains peripheral for most Americans.

Even before the financial meltdown, there was little serious discussion from either candidate about global warming or carbon emissions reduction. Green voters hoping for leadership on climate change in this election have had to be satisfied with the suddenly urgent issue of "energy independence", which both candidates have framed in terms of national security and economic prosperity.

Environmental issues offer neither candidate strategic advantage. For Barack Obama, announcing environmental policies that don’t directly benefit Americans could be used as evidence of a spendthrift liberal agenda. To establish his distance from green influence, Obama described himself as "unpopular with environmentalists" in the third debate.

For John McCain, the topic is even more loaded. He can’t use climate change to wedge Obama; McCain was a champion for action before it became a non-partisan issue, and co-sponsored the first bill to mandate emissions reductions in 2003. His surprisingly progressive environmental record runs, like many of his long-held beliefs, counter to those of his base.

But never mind McCain.

Environmentalists are hoping that an Obama White House will deploy energy independence as a Trojan horse for his strong environmental agenda. So far, Obama has used this issue to legitimise his $US15 billion annual budget for sustainable energy, which he says will create 5 million green jobs. So, will he deliver on climate change?

In an interview with Bloomberg News, Obama’s energy advisor Jason Grumet announced that Obama will use his presidential regulatory powers to set emissions limits if Congress does not act on climate change within 18 months after the election. Moreover, in September, his campaign said that he will "close the revolving door between government and special-interest lobbyists".

And for the most part Obama’s record proves this. The League of Conservation Voters has rated his environmental voting record as near perfect. But how imperfect is it? When it comes to special interest groups, he has an Achilles’ heel: coal.

The citizens of Obama’s state of Illinois live their lives above 100 billion tons of coal — a quarter of the nation’s total. Obama spokesman Tommy Vietor has said that Illinois basin coal has more untapped energy potential than the oil reserves of Saudi Arabia and Kuwait combined.

This might explain why in 1998, after pressure from the state’s coal industry, Obama voted for the Byrd-Hagel resolution not to ratify Kyoto (the only senator to support the Kyoto Protocol was his running mate, Joe Biden). Since 2004, Obama has received $US539,597 in contributions from employees of coal companies and electricity utilities, compared to $US402,365 for McCain, according to the non-partisan Center for Responsive Politics.

In 2005, the newly elected senator was assigned a seat on the Senate’s Environment and Public Works committee. In one of his first major votes, he used his swing vote to kill the Bush Administration’s widely criticised Clean Air Act. It was a controversial move, with many in Illinois considering it a snub to the state’s energy interests.

To regain favour with Illinois coal, Obama supported the 2005 Energy Bill, negotiated by Dick Cheney and referred to as "one of the worst corporate giveaways in history". It lifted the 160-acre cap restricting the expansion of coal-powered plants, allowing more coal plants to be constructed, and provided $US2.5 billion in tax exemptions to fossil fuel producers. Both John McCain and Hillary Clinton voted against it.

Then in January 2007, Obama co-sponsored an $US8 billion bill with a Kentucky Republican designed to promote liquefied coal as an alternative to oil. At the time, Obama said, "The people I meet in town-hall meetings back home would rather fill their cars with fuel made from coal reserves in southern Illinois than with fuel made from crude reserves in Saudi Arabia."

Environmental groups pounced. The Sierra Club explains that liquefied coal releases almost double the greenhouse gas emissions of regular gasoline. In June that year, Obama amended his position, requiring liquefied coal emissions to be 20 per cent lower than those of petroleum-based fuels, essentially killing the bill.

Since then, the coal industry has viewed him with increasing suspicion, despite his ongoing support for clean coal technology. And although, for their part, most environmental groups applauded this retraction and endorsed him for president, many are wondering whether his famed tendency for conciliation will end up handicapping his environmental policies.

"He’s definitely trying to straddle two politically irreconcilable objectives: taking decisive action against global warming while keeping a healthy coal industry," said Frank O’Donnell, president of the non-partisan Clean Air Watch, in an interview with USA Today. "Obama’s record certainly suggests that environmentalists aren’t going to be calling the shots in his administration without input from industry," O’Donnell said.

America’s — and Illinois’ — continuing dependence on coal, which supplies half of America’s energy, is unlikely to end anytime soon. However, besides coal (and the niggling issue of corn-based ethanol, which Obama also supports), both Obama and Biden have grand plans to address global warming.

Their policies suggest radical action. They support the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions to 80 per cent below 1990 levels by 2050, an Act co-sponsored by Biden in 2007. They plan to achieve this with a cap-and-trade scheme that will make industry pay for its carbon dioxide emissions. The expected $7 trillion of revenue will fund the transition to a clean-energy economy.

Both Biden and Obama are apparently ambivalent but mostly cool on nuclear power (while McCain avidly supports it) due to the absence of reliable storage facilities for nuclear waste. They don’t agree on everything, however. Biden does not support the promotion of clean coal.

Obama’s first real leadership challenge on the environment may be to turn public opinion on global warming. A recent UN Development Program study of the international public perception of climate change found US citizens significantly less likely than Australians and the EU to believe that global warming is due to human activity. They’re even less likely to see this as a threat to them or their way of life.

We have found little in our conversational experiences here to contradict this. Some even see the nation’s massive carbon footprint as evidence that they’re fulfilling their patriotic duty to consume.

With attitudes like that, Obama might need a whole stable of Trojan horses to get his agenda through, especially if the Democrats don’t gain control of the Senate.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.