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SEA Change: Will President Obama make the right choices?

Published: November 14, 2008
Section: Opinions


I was in Chum’s last Tuesday with a bunch of other members of SEA cheering wildly as soon as they called the election for Barack Obama, celebrating the end of eight terrible years and the beginning of an era of “hope” and “change.” I actually celebrated a whole lot, which is the reason this article didn’t come out last week.

The majority of environmentalists reacted with similar joy on Nov. 4. Obama had the support of scientists and environmental groups throughout the country because they tend to be more liberal, and none of them really wanted a President who was one of the strongest opponents of clean energy in Congress and a Vice President who doesn’t believe global warming is man-made. But will Obama really bring the change we need?

Obama has a great record of supporting the environment, and climate change specifically. He co-sponsored the Global Warming Pollution Reduction Act, which would reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 80% by 2050 through a cap and trade system, and his other proposals are spelled out in the article published two weeks ago.

Yet despite these promises, Obama has shown evidence that the environment is not his top priority. He is readily willing to compromise his beliefs in favor of other ideas he views as higher priority. Here are some examples:

Corn Ethanol: Obama supports ethanol produced from corn as an alternative fuel, despite the fact that is has been proven to be both more expensive and seven times less effective than ethanol produced from sugar cane. Some scientists have even found the process to result in higher levels of C02 emissions than the use of oil. Obama has explicitly stated that his support for corn ethanol subsidies is due to Illinois’ status as a corn producing state, and when the polls showed him losing in Iowa during the primaries, he gave a speech on corn to pander to the farmers. When push came to shove, he chose domestic farmers over the environment.

Liquified Coal: Obama reintroduced the Coal-to-Liquid Fuel Promotion Act of 2007 to the Senate, which would provide incentives to convert coal into diesel fuel. He seemed to not realize that even though it’s liquid, it’s still coal, which emits just as high levels of greenhouse gases as gasoline. Liquified coal would reduce our dependence on foreign oil, and it would certainly help out Illinois, the President-elect’s home state, which has large amounts of untapped coal, but at the extremely high price of cooking the planet.

Offshore Drilling: Obama opposed Bush’s executive order to lift the moratorium on offshore drilling, and repeatedly slammed the McCain campaign’s energy proposals for including drilling policies, but when gas prices and the economy started becoming key issues in the election, he was quick to switch sides. The majority of environmental groups oppose drilling on the basis that it destroys critical ecosystems, and increases risks of oil spills, yet the majority of the public supports it. Another example of Barack Obama choosing politics over the environment.

This is not to say that Obama will ignore the environment. He is likely to combine his economic and national security policies with environmentally friendly proposals. He plans to provide economic stimulus through the creation of green jobs, which can help to combat global warming. Attempts at reducing oil dependence in order to provide greater security in the Middle East go hand in hand with investment in alternative energy. He has already pushed President Bush to bail out the auto industry, while at the same time requiring them to “go greener.” Obama has shown himself to be a friend to environmental causes, but at a time when he has a major financial crisis to deal with, wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the threat of global terrorism, it is easy to predict which issues he will prioritize.

We must ensure that this prioritization does not happen, and that President Obama does not choose alternative energies that emit just as much C02 as gasoline simply to pander to farmers, or bail out the auto industry without stricter regulations on emissions. We need to make it clear to our future President that the threats of climate change and ecosystem loss are at least as dangerous to our nation as those other, more obvious threats. One internet blogger, Marguerite Manteau-Rao, proposed on The Huffington Post that we take the skills learned in the Obama campaign, the networks and fundraising, the phone calls and door-to-door canvassing, and the incredible internet operation that reached millions of new voters, and harness those towards addressing the threat of climate change. We should heed her advice.

Brandeis, and the nation as a whole, has a responsibility not to allow environmental issues to take the back burner while the government deals with the financial crisis and national security. The amount of energy and enthusiasm in the political process was higher than I’ve ever seen it in the weeks leading up to the presidential election, and attendance at political clubs, and canvassing, and the sheer numbers of people just “getting involved” skyrocketed.

We need to make sure that energy does not just fizzle out and die, and instead channel it towards addressing an issue far more important to our future than a single election.