02/19/2009 07:39 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Only Four Weeks? But What a Four Weeks!

On my way home from Chile, I was invited to a reception at the White House with the President, the Vice President, the First Lady and Dr. Biden. Gathered around were civil rights leaders, union presidents, environmentalists, women's organizations, non-profit advocacy leaders -- a broad spectrum of the progressive movement that suffered through eight years of the Bush administration and are now -- well, the word enthralled comes to mind.

A common comment was, "I haven't been here for eight years." But as I review the headlines from during the three weeks I was in Chile, I can see plenty of substantive, as well as symbolic, reasons for the excitement people feel at having the chance to address a man many of us have known since he was an Illinois legislator as "Mr. President."

The signing a day earlier of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act is, as far as I can recall, by far the biggest victory mustered by an American President in his first month in office. Environmentally, the bill is the most important piece of legislative support for clean energy ever adopted. Its provisions include $80 billion for a wide variety of environmental programs. The President, before he signed it in Denver, visited a solar-energy manufacturing facility. It was a nice bookend to the visit he made to a Ohio wind-turbine factory last month, when he launched his campaign  to get Congress to pass the bill.

In addition to directly funded investments, the bill also contains important, if little commented on, incentives to industry, states, and local government to go even further. Some of the second-year funding for energy efficiency, for example, is contingent on states following California's lead in giving their public utilities as much incentive to save energy as to increase electricity generation.

This was not the only evidence that a green-energy revolution was truly launched on January 20, when Obama took the oath of office. The day before the reception that I attended, EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson, in a letter to the Sierra Club, made it clear that the administration will move forward to comply with the Supreme Court ruling that carbon dioxide is a pollutant that EPA must regulate under the Clean Air Act. And only days earlier, the administration also set in motion the process to grant California its clean-car waiver, which will enable at least fifteen other states to join California in reducing CO2 emissions from motor vehicles by almost twice what Congress mandated in the fall of 2007. Combined with the federal role in restructuring the auto industry, the U.S. is now on a pathway to decarbonize personal transportation -- a goal the Sierra Club has pursued for thirty long, lonely years since Congress first mandated fuel-efficiency standards for Detroit.

The decisions to grant the California waiver and to begin the process of regulating carbon dioxide under the Clean Air Act represent quick victories for half of the Sierra Club's suggested "Clean Slate" agenda for the Obama administration. Two other Clean Slate goals -- protection of streams and communities from mountain removal mining and ambitious short-term goals for an economy-wide climate bill -- remain to be accomplished as the administration and Congress move forward.

In the first signs of promised reforms at the Department of the Interior, new Secretary Ken Salazar announced that environmentally destructive leases on 10,000 acres of Utah wilderness, many on the borders of Arches National Park, would be canceled.

And states and industry are seeing the signals that America is changing course. In the short time I was gone, the Sierra Club rolled up major state and local victories in its campaign to stop new coal-fired power plants. Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm announced a statewide moratorium on new coal-fired plants, an enormous step forward since Michigan was the proposed site of more new coal plants than any other state -- eight plants, amounting to ten percent of the total. In Nevada, NV Energy has postponed plans to build a 1,500-megawatt Ely coal plant. In Oklahoma, AES withdrew the application for its proposed Shady Point coal plant. In Montana, the proposed Highwood plant was canceled after extensive citizen protests. In Wisconsin, the state began to move towards replacing its existing coal-fired power plants with cleaner alternatives.

By the end of this month, the Sierra Club's three-year-old campaign against new coal plants will have stopped 93 plants -- almost two-thirds of the way to our goal.

There's never been a month -- not at least since the heady days of the early 1970s -- when environmental policy has moved so dramatically towards a sustainable future. The challenge now is to keep up the pace.