As the Obama presidency begins to take shape, those of us in the environmental movement—leaders of green nonprofits across the country—are eagerly awaiting the new administration. And while everyone is breathlessly second guessing everything from who might join his cabinet to which puppy his girls should adopt, let’s make one incredibly safe assumption. When all is said and done, Barack Obama will go down as the greenest president ever.
And not because he wants to. Because he has to.
Consider this: name the single most important president in the history of the environment. No, not Teddy Roosevelt, even though he named the first national park, started the National Park Service, and founded 51 wildlife refuges (he's pictured here with Sierra Club founder John Muir in Yosemite in 1903). Not Jimmy Carter, who set aside 130 million acres of Alaska and put solar panels on the White House (which Ronald Reagan famously removed).
Surprise, the most effective environmental president of all time—by far—is still Richard Nixon. In his six years in office, Nixon presided over a startling number of eco-accomplishments: the creation of the EPA and the White House Council on Environmental Quality, bans on DDT and lead in gasoline, and the passage of an unprecedented raft of legislation including the Endangered Species Act, Clean Air and Clean Water acts, the National Environmental Policy Act (which begat environmental impact statements), and more.
And Nixon did all this not because he wanted to. Because he had to. Nixon took office in January 1969 at the height of the nascent environmental movement’s powers. Cleveland’s Cuyahoga River had caught fire (twice, actually), Lake Erie was declared biologically dead, smokestacks in cities nationwide were spewing everything, and bald eagles, peregrine falcons, and brown pelicans were vanishing from egg-shell thinning courtesy of DDT. Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring and Paul Ehrlich’s Population Bomb were clarion calls to action, and 1970’s first Earth Day was then the largest demonstration in American history.
Nixon saw where this was all heading, and to ensure his political future, became Chief Environmentalist.
Obama is coming to the presidency precisely at another watershed moment for the environment. The earth is warming as atmospheric dioxide concentrations continue to climb with devastating consequences: sea levels are rising, storms increasing, species disappearing at record levels, forest fires raging (like this week's California , a photo of which is here) deserts and diseases spreading, coral reefs bleaching and dying. Just this week, the island nation of Maldives, only three feet above sea level, announced it is shopping for real estate in Sri Lanka or India just in case it drowns under a warming ocean. Global CO2 concentrations, historically at 280 parts per million, are fast approaching 400 ppm, while the emerging scientific consensus recommends hauling concentrations back to 350 or below.
And there’s one key difference between 1970 and today: Nixon’s problems were seen as local. Restore Lake Erie. Clean that smokestack. Today’s problems are hugely, unforgivably global.
But global climate change is just the first of the ecological twin towers confronting us and Obama. The emerging freshwater crisis, exacerbated by climate change, is only starting to get the attention it deserves, and will soon burst onto Page One as weather patterns continue drying key bodies of water. Many of the world’s largest rivers—the Colorado, Nile, Ganges, Yellow—barely reach the sea in dry seasons, and water scarcity is playing a significant role in the unfolding Darfur crisis. Want peace in the Middle East? You’ll have to solve Palestinian access to water first.
To his credit, Obama sees the writing on the wall. In his Grant Park victory speech, he recognized the short list of issues confronting his presidency. “For even as we celebrate tonight,” he intoned last Tuesday night, “we know the challenges that tomorrow will bring are the greatest of our lifetime—two wars, a planet in peril, the worst financial crisis in a century.” And during the debates, when moderators asked which programs he’d give up as the economy collapsed, Obama adamantly reasserted his belief that green collar jobs like building wind turbines, weatherizing houses and installing solar panels were a centerpiece of his emerging economic agenda, and would NOT be cut. Let’s see.
Not surprisingly, environmental leaders, starved for action, are quickly pushing and pulling at Obama. Al Gore and his “We” campaign advocate weaning us completely off fossil fuels in 10 years. Author Bill McKibben, leader of the new 350.org, a reference to CO2 concentrations, has lobbied the president-elect to head to Poland in December for upcoming climate talks. And the entire green community is salivating over the possibility of the US revisiting the Kyoto protocol.
What will Obama do? The likely short list includes a radically new energy policy, a reinvigorated EPA and Interior, new protections for old growth forests and endangered ecosystems, an international climate treaty of some kind, a revived and greener Detroit, a continued greening of architecture, schools, businesses, and the marketplace, new wilderness areas, enhanced recycling, and a stronger endangered species act.
For like Nixon in 1969, one sees the unfolding arc of the environmental story. On the campaign, Obama frequently cited Martin Luther King’s “fierce urgency of now,” referring to his own candidacy as much as anything else. And without question there is a fierce urgency to economic realties—in fact, many will urge Obama to derail a green agenda for the sake of the economy.
But there is a fierce urgency to the planet’s situation—and the data will continue to unrelentingly point in even gloomier directions. The planet is ecologically unraveling, and a tsunami of public support will demand critical action.
And Obama will respond. Not because he wants to, even though he might. Because he has to. And if McCain had win last week, I'd be writing the same words.
“We’ve only got four minutes to save the world,” sings Madonna. We might have a little longer than that. Four years—his first term—sounds about right.