POLITICS
12/27/2008 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Environmentalists Fear Obama Will Forget Them In Economic Crisis

There is a small but growing concern within environmental circles that the current economic crisis will push back some of the "green" agenda that Barack Obama had promised to bring to the White House.

The president-elect insisted while on the campaign trail that economic relief and environmental progress aren't mutually exclusive. He proposed spending $150 billion over the course of ten years to create five million "green collar" jobs, and an additional $60 billion for a National Infrastructure Reinvestment Bank that would (as the title suggests) reform and reshape our nation's infrastructure. Compared to the sums of money being thrown at the financial bailout, these totals no longer seem so daunting.

Environmentalists are keen to hold Obama to his promise. On Tuesday, a group of leading figures in the industry convened a call announcing that they had sent the president-elect a 391-page report titled "Transition to Green" touting the interconnectedness of environmental revitalization and economic growth.

"We need to dig our way out of the financial hole we are in with a green shovel," said Larry Schweiger, president and CEO of the National Wildlife Federation.

"There is a tremendous economic opportunity if we do this right," said Kevin Knobloch, president of the Union of Concerned Scientists.

But while the tone of the call was almost exclusively optimistic, others are expressing some worry that the financial market could overwhelm what, just a few months ago, seemed like the ideal political environment to jumpstart a green agenda.

There is no doubt that Obama himself is committed to the idea of a green-jobs revolution. And it seems likely that a portion of the stimulus plan that he hopes to pass days after entering office will be devoted to just that (whether by targeting infrastructure repairs or renewable energies). Certainly there is evidence that show it could work. But conservative theorists argue that the climate is wrong for green job creation.

"There may be some stimulus package with a green spin," said Ken Green -- a generally libertarian environmental expert at the American Enterprise Institute. "But the more they spin them green, the more they are encouraging people to buy expensive things." Environmentally-friendly products aren't cheap. "And that's not what they want if they want people to be spending money to stimulate the economy."

The real debate, however, is going to come over a cap-and-trade system on carbon emissions. Obama supports this greenhouse gas-limiting enterprise. But his hands could be tied by larger financial concerns,

"It is clearly a very exciting period. But I think it is important to temper that excitement with the economic realities that we are facing. And I think it is going to make it more difficult to pass a mandatory climate emissions legislation, certainly in 2009," said Paul Bledsoe, communications director of the National Commission on Energy Policy. "I think the Obama administration wants this to be as green as possible. The question is how do you get the money out there faster and to the right places."

But the debate over environmental initiatives is no longer defined as yes and no, but rather when and how. Climate control legislation seems more likely to pass now than every before.

And it's not just Obama. Henry Waxman's ascendancy to the head of the House Energy and Commerce Committee is also a major step forward. Though Myron Ebell, a global warming skeptic and policy director at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, argues that the new chair will hurt workers.

"I think business felt that [former chair Jon] Dingell may not be our friend but he is going to pass legislation we can live with or survive," he said. "Waxman doesn't represent autoworkers. He represents Beverly Hills."

Putting aside Ebell's view, there should be a bevy of policy breakthroughs under the Obama administration, whether in the stimulus package, a stand-alone energy bill, tax incentives for renewable energy research and development, or mandatory limits on carbon emissions. The question is simply whether they will come sooner or later.

"We need to be able to show that an aggressive response to reducing global warming emissions will not harm the economy, but in fact generate new jobs and marshal investment in clean technologies," said Knobloch. "It has to be done in a way that is sensitive to regional concerns and jobs."