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The Green FDR: Obama's First 100 Days Make -- And May Remake -- History

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The media just keeps missing -- or messing up -- the story of the century.

Future historians will inevitably judge all 21st-century presidents on just two issues: global warming and the clean energy transition. If the world doesn't stop catastrophic climate change -- Hell and High Water -- then all Presidents, indeed, all of us, will be seen as failures and rightfully so.

How else could future generations judge us if the U.S. and the world stay anywhere near our current emissions path, warm most of the inland United States 10 to 15°F by century's end, with sea levels 3 to 7 feet higher, rising perhaps an inch or two a year, with the Southwest from Kansas to California a permanent dust bowl, and much of the ocean a hot, acidic dead zone -- impacts that could be irreversible for 1,000 years if we don't reverse emissions soon and sharply. This will require an unbroken -- and indeed escalating -- response by our political leadership throughout this century. The same is true for the very important, but still secondary, issue of avoiding the worst impacts of peak oil.

In that sense, what team Obama has accomplished in its first 100 days is nothing less than an unprecedented reversal of decades of unsustainable national policy forced down the throat of the American public by conservatives. He gets a solid A+. While I will present a longer list below, three game-changing accomplishments stand out:
  1. Green Stimulus: Progressives, Obama keep promise to jumpstart clean energy, economy -- conservatives keep promise to jumpstop the future
  2. Sustainable Budget: The first sustainable budget in U.S. history.
  3. Regulatory breakthrough: EPA finds carbon pollution a serious danger to Americans' health and welfare requiring regulation
Obama has clearly demonstrated he has a serious chance to be the first President since FDR to remake the country through his positive vision. Indeed, if Obama is a two-term president, if he achieves even half of what he has set out to, he will likely be remembered as "the green FDR."

As an interesting side note, President Reagan, who is held in some esteem with historians these days, will almost certainly be relegated to a second-tier, if not third-tier, president by the painful dual realities of global warming and peak oil. After all, it was Ronald Reagan who put conservatives strongly and permanently on the pro-pollution, anti-efficiency, anti-clean-energy side, where they remain today (see "Who got us in this energy mess? Start with Ronald Reagan" and "Why is our energy policy so lame? Ask the three GOP stooges" and "Hill conservatives reject all 3 climate strategies and embrace Rush Limbaugh"). It is Reagan, more than anyone else, who put the GOP on the self-destructively wrong side of scientific reality (though Newt Gingrich is a close second).

Since the establishment media doesn't get global warming -- seeing it mostly through the lens of their standard drama- and personality-driven coverage focused on the ephemeral (did Obama "blink" on earmarks, Newt Gingrich faces off vs. Al Gore ) -- and since establishment historians almost by definition focus on the past, the overwhelming majority of "first 100 days" articles you will read are irrelevant exercises in navelgazing. I won't even bother linking to or debunking the spate of stories in today's New York Times or Washington Post Sunday sections -- the only one worth reading is, not surprisingly, Tom Friedman's.

These myopic stories all befit an industry so shortsighted it couldn't even even understand the implications for its own future of the Internet revolution it was reporting on. As but one of many painful examples, here is Joe Klein writing in the normally green-savvy Time, "Sizing Up Obama's First 100 Days":

The fate of Obama's first year in office, if not his Administration, will probably be determined by the way he handles four distinct challenges -- two in foreign policy and two domestically....

And that's the second domestic challenge: the realization that Congress will not give Obama everything he wants. Aides say the President's moments of frustration almost always have to do with Congress. "We know that not every wagon makes it across the frontier," says a top Obama adviser. "But we're not willing to decide yet which wagons are going to make it and which aren't." In fact, that decision seems more and more apparent: Congress is unlikely to pass the linchpin of Obama's alternative-energy initiative -- a cap-and-trade program for carbon emissions to combat global warming and tilt the market toward energy independence but that would also raise energy prices in the midst of a recession.

"The wagon that needs to get through is health care," says a second Obama adviser, picking up the metaphor.

Note the utter lack of knowledge or interest in the substance of the global warming problem. Note the backwards view of the core issue: Cap-and-trade is not the linchpin of Obama's alternative energy initiative -- it is alternative energy that is the linchpin of Obama's effort to avert catastrophic global warming.

Note that Klein, another status-quo establishment journalist like David Broder and Evan Thomas, parrots the standard conservative talking point that Obama wants to "raise energy prices in the midst of a recession," when the cap doesn't even kick in until 2012. Seriously guys, can you think for yourselves?

Note the selective quoting meant to imply that Obama is ready to throw a cap-and-trade overboard to save health care, when anybody who actually listens to any of Obama's major speeches would know how nonsensical that view is -- see In today's big economic speech, Obama reaffirms his commitment to a clean energy economy and strong climate bill: "The only way to truly spark this transformation is through a gradual, market-based cap on carbon pollution"

Obama gets global warming. The media doesn't.

And I'd be happy to take a bet with Klein or anyone else that Congress will pass a cap-and-trade bill before the 2010 mid-term election.

Anyway, let's move from the out-of-touch chattering class to a class in green leadership. How has Obama jumpstarted the one true task of every U.S. President of the 21st century -- preserving the health and welfare of the next 100 billion people to walk the Earth?

Here is a partial list of what Obama has achieved in his first 100 days -- please feel free to add others -- laying the groundwork for him becoming the Green FDR:
  1. Obama began the process of blocking the vast majority of new coal plants. The EPA has stopped one new coal plant in South Dakota (Obama EPA blocks South Dakota Coal Power Plant), reversed the Bush EPA's effort to ignore the Supreme Court decision that determined carbon dioxide was a pollutant (and hence that CO2 emissions from new coal-fired power plants needed regulating), and initiated the process of regulating greenhouse gases for the first time in U.S. history.
  2. He began the process of dramatically increasing the efficiency of our vehicles, by ordering EPA to quickly give California and a dozen other states the right to put in place tough emissions requirements for tailpipe emissions of greenhouse gases -- and by ordering the Department of Transportation to quickly issue and phase-in toughrt fuel economy standards to comply with the 2007 Energy Bill, the first overhaul of the nation's fuel efficiency standards in over three decades (see here).
  3. He appointed a first-rate Cabinet and then unleashed them to start inconvenient-truth telling to the public after 8 years of Administration denial and muzzling of U.S. scientists (see Steven Chu: "Wake up," America, "we're looking at a scenario where there's no more agriculture in California," and "This is a real economic disaster in the making for our children, for your children").
  4. In every single major speech, he has focused on the urgent need for the clean energy transition, for a price for carbon (cap-and-trade and "closing the carbon loophole"), and the unsustainability of our current economic system (see Obama gets the Ponzi scheme: "The choice we face is not between saving our environment and saving our economy. The choice we face is between prosperity and decline.")
  5. He signed into law the tax credits needed to achieve his ambitious goal of 1 million plug-in hybrids by 2015 -- the key alternative fuel vehicle strategy needed to avert the worst consequences of three decades of successful conservative efforts to stop this country from dealing with the energy/economic security threat of rising dependence on imported oil and the inevitably grim impacts of peak oil (see "Why electricity is the only alternative fuel that can lead to energy independence"). He also enacted into law $2 billion in grants and loans for R&D into advanced vehicle batteries, a tenfold increase over current funding. Plug-ins and electric cars, of course, are a core climate solution, since electric drives are more efficient, easily powered by carbon-free energy and indeed far cheaper to operate per mile than gasoline, even when running on renewable power. In the longer term, plug ins and electric cars can also help enable the full renewable revolution.
  6. He signed into law a massive investment in mass transit and train travel -- and laid out an aggressive vision for a high-speed rail network. The 70% boost in funding is a crucial effort needed to prepare this country for a time when air travel simply becomes too expensive for most people (and then a slightly later time when air travel is seen as simply too destructive of a livable climate) -- a time not very far away -- one that the vast majority of readers of this blog will live to see.
  7. He signed into law the tax credits needed meet his ambitious goal of doubling renewables in his first term (see "Another big win for renewables in the stimulus bill").
  8. He signed into law the funding needed to jumpstart a 21st smart grid that is critical to enable the renewable energy, energy efficiency, and plug-in hybrid revolution. He also made what may be his most important appointment, Jon Wellinghoff for Energy Commission Chief, who understands the future is not filled with new coal and nuclear plants (see "We may not need any, ever"), and who has already begun jumpstarting the new, green grid ("Huge 'Green Power Express' wind grid gains federal rate incentives").
  9. He signed into law the single biggest investment in the deployment of energy-efficient technology in U.S. history, along with strong incentives for state governments to fix their inefficiency-promoting utility regulations.
  10. For the first time in three decades, he more than doubled the annual budget for advanced energy efficiency, renewable energy, and low carbon technology after Reagan slashed federal efficiency and renewables investments 80% to 90%, which launched decades of vehement ideological opposition to clean tech by even so-called moderate and maverick conservatives (see "Is a possible 60th Senate seat worth a not-very-green GOP Commerce Secretary?" and "The greenwasher from Arizona has a record as dirty as the denier from Oklahoma").
  11. He put forward, the first sustainable budget in U.S. history, one that invests in clean energy, included cap-and-trade revenue, and seeks repeal of fossil industry subsidies. Yes, he made a serious tactical mistake by tentatively pursuing the possibility of trying to pass a climate bill through reconciliation, which allowed conservatives to score some meaningless tactical political victories and thereby confuse the media into thinking Obama was himself not serious about this issue (see George Stephanopoulos, Nate Silver, and Marc Ambinder all seem confused about global warming and budget politics and Obama says his energy plan and cap-and-trade "will be authorized" even if it's not in the budget "and I will sign it" -- Washington Post confused. In fact his budget and every thing he has done as president shows the reverse is true, that he understands the fate of his presidency and the health and well-being of the American public rests on his success in passing serious energy and climate legislation.
Years from now, long after the economy has recovered, this may well be remembered as the time that progressives, led by Obama, began the climate-saving transition to a sustainable low-carbon economy built around green jobs.

Of course, it's entirely possible that this history-making first 100 days won't remake history. It's more than possible that we won't stop catastrophic warming. But if we don't stop the 100s of years of misery, of Hell and High Water," that will almost certainly be because the conservative movement threw their entire weight behind humanity's self-destruction (see "Anti-science conservatives must be stopped") -- because conservative in both chambers refuse to conserve anything, including a livable climate, and willingly sacrificed the health and well-being of the next 50 generations of Americans for their ideology.

But even if we fail to stop the catastrophe, there is no escape from Americans, indeed, all humans, ultimately having a low-carbon, low-oil, low-water low-natural-capital lifestyle. And thus the vast majority of Obama's initiatives will be recognized by future generations and future historians as the point at which the U.S. government embraced the inevitable and started down the sustainable path that presidents either chose to embrace voluntarily in time to avoid the worst impacts or were forced to embraced by the collapse of the global Ponzi scheme.

Obama is the first president in history to articulate both the why and how of the sustainable vision -- and to actively, indeed aggressively, pursue its enactment. And that is why he is likely to be remembered as the green FDR.

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