01/31/2011 06:06 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The Transition From Environmental Politics to Sustainability Politics

Many environmentalists were dismayed with President Obama's State of the Union Address because he did not mention climate change and made a punch line out of preserving salmon. I agree that he could have used a better example of federal government management dysfunctions; for example, he could have slammed the old Minerals Management Service, the unit that shared the blame for last summer's oil catastrophe in the Gulf. Instead, we learned that his favorite example of government mismanagement was that:

"...the Interior Department is in charge of salmon while they're in fresh water, but the Commerce Department handles them in when they're in saltwater. And I hear it gets even more complicated once they're smoked."

All kidding aside, it would be wise for the President to remember that protecting the environment is a core American value with widespread public support. If he'd like to unify environmental protection and sustainability services in the United States, he can always propose a cabinet level department of Environmental Sustainability and bring EPA, NOAA, the Forest Service and several other critical agencies under unified management. I don't expect that type of proposal to emerge from the new Congress, but it wouldn't be a bad idea.

Obama and his folks clearly understand the importance of a clean environment, but their strategy seems to be to reduce the visibility of their actions and subsume their climate and environmental protection policy under the big tent of 21st century global competitiveness. In case you missed it, a big piece of the President's ambitious climate policy came when he set the goal of having one million electric cars by 2015. He wed the transition from a fossil fuel economy to job creation by stating that:

"...clean energy breakthroughs will only translate into clean energy jobs if businesses know there will be a market for what they're selling. So tonight, I challenge you to join me in setting a new goal: By 2035, 80 percent of America's electricity will come from clean energy sources. Some folks want wind and solar. Others want nuclear, clean coal and natural gas. To meet this goal, we will need them all -- and I urge Democrats and Republicans to work together to make it happen."

These energy goals, when coupled with EPA's regulation of greenhouse gasses under the Clean Air Act, are the Obama climate policy. While it is less comprehensive than cap and trade or a carbon tax, it is a real, operational policy. With renewed turmoil in the Mideast, the source of almost half of our oil, and the possibility of higher gasoline prices in our future, a million electric cars might not be as crazy as it sounds.

I think that some environmental activists may not be focused on the paradigm shift now underway. Environmental protection has become an integrated element of economic development. Here in NYC it is a core element of PlaNYC 2030- the city's sustainability plan. President Obama has made the transition to a green economy a central part of his policies to revitalize the economy. These folks are not protecting the biosphere because they love nature; they are protecting the goose that lays the golden eggs. There is a growing understanding that ecosystems provide the basis for our wealth and well being. PlaNYC sets the goal of making sure all New Yorkers are within a ten minute walk from a park. This goal promotes economic development in order to make New York City a more attractive place for businesses and residents. Renewable energy holds out the prospect of lower costs and lower impact on our environment. It is good for the environment, but it is even better for the economy.

The environment evolved first from an aesthetic and ethical concern about preserving nature, at the time when Teddy Roosevelt created our national parks, to an issue of public health by the time EPA was a decade old and now to an issue of economic health as well. That does not mean that we are not concerned with the value of preserving wilderness for our descendents or we don't worry about the impact of toxics on our health. But if the economy is the central issue of our political life, then environment has just moved to that crucial central point. The 2011 State of the Union Address did not have to discuss climate policy to engage in it.

The President's near silence on environment in the State of the Union seemed to be a recognition of the anti-regulatory fervor of the new right wing members of Congress. However, even while announcing a review of the negative impacts of regulation, he was careful to articulate the benefits of regulations as well:

"I will not hesitate to create or enforce commonsense safeguards to protect the American people. That's what we've done in this country for more than a century. It's why our food is safe to eat, our water is safe to drink, and our air is safe to breathe."

Subsuming environmental protection under the broader themes of sustainable economic development is not without risk. Preserving the planet for its own sake is an ethical imperative, and economic development is not the only goal of our civilization. But the growing recognition that economic development requires a sustainable natural environment is transforming and strengthening support for environmental protection. These days politics is not just about "the economy, stupid," but about a sustainable economy.