11/04/2009 09:51 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

The Best and Worst of Times

A year ago the American people voted for change. Central to what persuaded them was then-candidate Barack Obama's promise of a new way of thinking about energy and the environment, a restored respect for scientific integrity, and the leveraging of clean energy to jump start the American economy, rebuild the industrial heartland, and restore American global leadership.

How are we -- and the new Administration -- doing?

I'm inclined to steal from Dickens: "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times." The past year has demonstrated that the new President meant what he said about a fundamentally different approach. He has appointed a committed and dedicated group of tremendously talented people to help him, has laid down some very strong markers, and has done a phenomenal job of wheeling most of the federal bureaucracy onto a new path. But while doing all of this, he's solved none of the fundamental dilemmas and is evading others.

So why the best of times?

Science is back. It is back where it really matters, with people like John Holdren as Science Advisor, Steven Chu at Energy, Lisa Jackson at EPA, and Jane Lubchenco at the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration. It is back in the refreshing (if full of unintended consequences) emphasis on transparency, in a huge upsurge in the credibility of government statistical reporting and accounting, and in the reversal of scores of decisions that had been tainted by meddling with scientific findings.

Clean energy is in. Whether it was the $80 billion directed to clean energy sources by the Stimulus Package, Interior Secretary Salazar's challenge of the Bush administration's horrendous oil and gas leases in the nation's most precious landscapes, Lisa Jackson's tough-mindedness in challenging mountaintop-removal mining permits, or Steven Chu's finally breaking the Gordian knot that had prevented DOE from making loan guarantees for innovations like the smart grid, the new Administration has put clean-energy options at the top of its priority list. Time and time again, President Obama walked the walk on the pages that count -- the Federal Register and the Budget.

Tomorrow matters again. Millions of acres of landscape which the Bush administration had opened up to commercial exploitation have been put back, protected, in the legacy we leave our children -- some by legislation, some by regulation, some by settling lawsuits brought against the Bush administration by the Sierra Club and other environmental groups. Federal land managers have been instructed to stop pretending that climate does not, for example, threaten polar bears, and to start applying climate-smart management techniques to our forests, mountains, prairies, and wetlands. The Roadless areas of the National Forests, protected in the waning days of the Clinton years, were assaulted with unprecedented ferocity by Bush and his Forest Chief Mark Reyes. They were saved from the chainsaw, feller buncher and D6 Dozer by the courts -- and now President Obama has moved to safeguard them permanently.

America's back in the world. One of the first decisions the new Administration made was to resuscitate an almost dead global treaty designed to curb mercury pollution of global ecosystems. President Obama is likely to go to Copenhagen, and he has engaged in working to create a global climate agreement with far more energy than any of his predecessors, including Bill Clinton.

But set against this impressive set of accomplishments -- far more than any other Administration has ever achieved in its first year -- is a sobering and even terrifying reality. None of this really gets at the basic problems.

So why the worst of times?

Bipartisanship requires tough love.
Progress in Executive Agencies has been phenomenal. But another world lies down Pennsylvania Avenue. Congress has already chewed up much of the Administration's legislative environmental agenda and spat it out. The Republican minority is determined to block every environmental appointment, challenge every rule, and drive out every progressive voice they possibly can. And the White House has yet to find a way to do what Lyndon Johnson mastered -- make it clear to Congress that working with the White House may require compromise, but has its rewards, while obstructing it means doing some very hard political time.

The geography of carbon needs to be confronted. It's hard for the United States to respond to 80 percent of the American people who want a new, low-carbon clean-energy future -- because so many states produce, ship, or consume coal for power or oil for transport. One recent study suggested that 34 states have major sectors of their economy embedded with coal. Congress has always viewed energy as a regional issue -- and treated the overwhelming majority of the American people who consume energy services as secondary to the "big boys" -- the coal, oil, and utility cartels that depend on using the atmosphere as an unlimited dump for their true end product -- carbon pollution.

The Obama administration seems to have no game plan to deal with this -- indeed, its recent decision to delay new Department of the Interior rules to protect rivers from mountaintop-removal mining waste strongly suggests that, for the moment, the Administration views the carbon-lobby veto as a fact of life.

The rot runs deep. The government's capacity to provide basic environmental services has enormously degraded during the last eight years -- indeed for the entire period since Ronald Reagan declared that government was the problem, not the solution. The Administration can't spend the stimulus money on good, sustainable public works projects -- because states no longer plan, prepare, or can execute them. Reversing the horrendous legal precedents of the Bush administration has proven excruciating because Bush embedded moles deep within the Justice Department committed to the idea that the government is above the law. Agencies like the Park Service, the Fish and Wildlife Service, and the EPA just don't have the necessary staff or equipment to do their jobs now that their political leadership is asking them to do so.

No one wants to pay for anything. And the reactionary right is determined to keep it this way. They have created such a strong belief that America -- the least-taxed industrial society on earth -- is over-taxed, that politicians of both parties are afraid to use our national wealth (which is still enormous) for any public purpose, including safeguarding our future. While the Obama administration would like to lead in Copenhagen, chief negotiator Todd Stern has been set up as the scapegoat if Copenhagen fails, because the U.S. will not even talk about paying for the damages its carbon pollution imposes on others. The President's effort to restore fiscal sanity by making those who emit carbon pollution pay for emission permits was shut down in the first days of Congressional deliberation, and the concept has barely surfaced since then.

At the end of the day the President and his Administration will have to present us with a choice -- if we want honest books, facts we can trust, and a future for our kids, we are going to have to pay for them. We don't have to like it. We right now we are acting like we aren't even grown-up enough to discuss it. But at the end of the day, you can't provide for the future by stealing from it. President Obama knows that. Are we willing to let him tell us?