Will 2012 be the year Obama goes green?

By Ed King and John Parnell

US climate change negotiator Todd Stern at the centre of the "huddle" that ultimately led to the signing of the Durban Platform. (Source: Ed King)

Barack Obama’s international reputation on climate action is far from spectacular, but as 2011 draws to a close there are signs that next year could see a swing towards green issues in the US.

Speaking as President Elect in 2008 he said: “My Presidency will mark a new chapter in America’s leadership on climate change that will strengthen our security and create millions of new jobs in the process.” For one reason or another, this process has barely begun.

Major renewable energy projects are now starting to get the green light. The US drove a hard bargain in Durban but did ultimately match the actions of other major emitters.

The final hurdle for bringing Obama’s environmental promises to the fore is Congress. If President Obama can re-establish a majority in what looks like a highly winnable election, he may not have that challenge to contend with come November 2012.

Now as economic concerns are lifting and unemployment figures improve, there are signs too that American citizens are changing their attitudes on all things green.

Asked in a Gallup poll whether the US government is doing too much, too little or just the right amount on the environment, 49% opted for too little. Asked for their views on the environmental movement, only 9% said they were unsympathetic.

The results also reveal that for Americans, environmental issues and climate change are not on an equal footing. Concern over issues of water pollution were raised by as many as 79% of respondents, while climate change worried only 51%.

This brings us on to the Keystone XL pipeline project. In Europe, it has been painted largely in the context of a dispute over carbon-heavy fuel sources. The tarsands oil that it would transport of Canada to the Gulf Coast refineries of Texas.

Domestically however, the environmental opposition has more to do with fears over pollution of a major water aquifer in Nebraska. Given the above results from Gallup, Obama might have more support for ditching the project than he realises.

Tied hands

In 2011’s State of the Union address President Obama said that “clean energy breakthroughs will only translate into clean energy jobs if businesses know there will be a market for what they’re selling. By 2035, 80 percent of America’s electricity will come from clean energy sources”.

The Obama administration has just announced 500MW worth of clean energy projects an incremental but by no means insignificant contribution to this target. But how much further might he go in 2012?

“My general view is that Obama will or cannot do much, besides stand behind some ongoing EPA rulemaking on air and water issues, maybe push for some domestic nature protection,” says Stacy VanDeveer, Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of New Hampshire and Senior Fellow at the Transatlantic Academy in Washington, DC. “The administration wants to say over and over that rules such as vehicle efficiency save a lot more money than they cost.

“I don’t expect much in the way of an environmental action agenda for him before the election. He will talk about clean energy but nothing seems likely to pass in the Congress,” says VanDeveer.

Jim DiPeso, VP of policy and communications with Republicans for Environmental Protection agrees with this sentiment.

“Environment has become much more polarised over the past four years – it wasn’t so long ago that high profile Republicans such as Senators John McCain and Mitt Romney were warning people about climate change.”

He describes the issue as creating “ill mannered politics…tribal and almost cultish” adding that “the politically correct stance is that the environment is an issue for the left. We need to get to the point where we have an argument over a common set of facts.”

State level success

Away from the partisan and sluggish politics of Washington, there are more positive signs across the US at a State level.

John Kassel, President of the Conservation Law Foundation describes the situation in Washington as “stasis”.

“At state level, we have been making great progress – California, Massachusetts and 30 other states have renewable energy standards that regulate utilities to have a percentage of their power supplied by renewable energy,” says Kassel.

State-level carbon trading is also taking hold in the US. California’s might be the most high-profile scheme courtesy of former Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger’s enthusiasm, but the most successful lies in the country’s east. The Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI) is made up of ten states including New York, Massachusetts and New Jersey.

RGGI has been credited with generating $1.6 billion for member states, saving consumers $1.3 billion on their energy bills and creating 16,000 jobs.

The RGGI shows that environmental policies in the US do not have to preclude economic success. The challenge now for the Administration is to persuade middle America, that these policies are worthy of a Federal roll-out.

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