What environmental issues should President Obama focus on?
Vanessa offers the new president some unsolicited advice.
Tue, Jan 20, 2009 at 12:55 AM
A wise friend said I should ask your advice on the decisions and challenges I face in the next four (or eight?)years. I’m thinking about dusting off Jimmy’s solar panels — Ronald stashed them in the basement — and putting them back on the roof. What should my other priorities be?
Thanks, in advance,
— Barack Obama
Dear President Obama,
Wise friend, indeed! As always, I have plenty of advice, but it won't be pretty.
No one wants to be the bearer of bad news. Scientists and activists who try are dismissed as pessimists, and truths are ignored because they may induce shame or guilt. Oh well ... that's why they call me the Green Monster, though I really am an optimist.
You have been entrusted with the welfare of a nation that is on a fundamentally unsustainable path – a deadly, if not suicidal, trajectory. We have become bondsmen to our own fossil fuel-driven economy, borrowing billions of dollars every week to buy oil and shelling out a trillion dollars in subsidies every year to oil and coal producers. We have gone into financial and moral debt in order to keep alive a paradigm that is, in fact, killing us. While we chase buried, limited fossil resources, we are wasting the best of our resources: tenacity, faith, ingenuity and innovation, a populace ready and wanting to work, and the capacity of the country’s youth to carry us forward.
As you have said, we are living on a planet in peril. Tipping points in Earth’s climate are rapidly approaching, and we are facing a world that will be defined by devastating “natural” disasters, unbounded disease, rising sea levels and global food and water shortages, all prompting millions of environmental refugees. You will need to convey to the nation what the scientists — and I hope you — already know: the extraordinary nature of the perils before us.
We have a fleeting chance to take action that is commensurate with the menace of global warming. You have the power to vanquish our environmental and economic predicaments with a single strategy: a Green New Deal. The Green New Deal would include:
• An immediate moratorium and phase-out of coal plants. Coal emits as much carbon dioxide as all other fossil fuels combined. “Clean Coal” is how my 9-year-old son learned the meaning of "oxymoron."
• A tax on oil, gas and coal. One widely supported scenario gives pollution tax revenues directly to the populace and creates stimulus projects for clean energy, while potentially doing away with the income tax. There is a wide consensus — conservative and liberal, economist and ecologist — that shifting to pollution taxes would improve the economy, even if we weren’t concerned about global warming. I know the word "tax" isn't politically popular, but cap and trade options are not the best solution.
• Serious efficiency standards in transportation, construction and technology.
• An update to the nation’s power grid. We need efficient systems for the transmission of wind, solar and geothermal energies. Reconstructing the power grid should be one of the main investments of a green New Deal. It will create jobs that can’t be outsourced, economic stimulus, technological innovations and energy independence, and it's a first step toward curbing pollution, health crises and global climate change.
• Regional food systems that protect biodiversity while supporting conservation, worker’s rights and sustainable energy as well as humane, natural farms. The way we grow, process, transport and eat food is at the base of most of our troubles. In order to avoid food and water shortages; the pandemics of obesity, cancer, diabetes and heart disease; global warming; pollution; and topsoil loss, we need to drastically revamp our food systems.
The good news is the changes needed to deflect catastrophic climate change can also be the changes that pull us out of our dead-end economic strategies: high unemployment, disastrous health conditions, war, and global isolation. As Robert Kennedy Jr. puts it, “We cannot drill and burn our way out of our present economic and energy problems. We can, however, invent and invest our way out.”
You have energized us and renewed our optimism. My hope lies in my sense that you can ask people to sacrifice, and they will rise to your call. America has been at its best when we have been asked to take responsibility and to participate in our state of affairs. The New Deal and the war effort of WWII are prime examples of what we are able and willing to do when called upon. I think your constituents are longing to be an active part of building a nation and a future that we can all be proud of. Put us to work.
Be the president who ushers in the best of what we can be. The truth of what awaits us without immediate, radical change will energize some — and petrify others. Fear brings denial and vehement resistance; don’t be afraid to be unpopular. Do be afraid of the kind of future that inaction would bring. This level of transformation and commitment demands the highest level of courage and integrity. I have to believe you’re up for it.
Know that I am always available to discuss the future of life on Earth and fate of the human race. Give me a call anytime; I’ll catch the first train up to D.C. In the meantime, gather everything written by Van Jones and Lester Brown — and not just because I have huge crushes on both of them — Paul Hawken, Bill McKibben, Thomas Berry and Vandana Shiva. They will keep you inspired and ready to tackle the greatest of perils.
Let’s make our daughters proud. Better yet, let’s make their children proud.
Keep it Green,
About the solar panels: Shame on Reagan for taking them down, and by all means dust them off. But technology has come a long way in the last 30 years. You would do well to invest in new panels — oh, and look into geothermal heating and cooling for the White House. That, finally, would be a good use of my tax dollars.