Environmentalists Must Pick Between Barack and A Hard Place

Change. 

This single word swayed millions of Americans in 2008 to elect Barack Obama as our 44th president. Obama was a great charmer. He inspired people with motivating speeches and an uncontested level of enthusiasm. He permeated all levels of the media and spawned millions of walking advertisements donning his stylized portrait with the words “hope,” “change,” and “progress.” But most importantly, he developed an inclusive movement built upon that one damn concept – change. 

Obama’s success ultimately comes down to the ambiguity of his greatest tactic. Change – the perfect answer for a frustrated nation. For the unemployed, change meant job creation. For other Americans, it meant repealing Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, fighting poverty, decreasing lobbyist influences, and so on. In its simplest, most obvious form, change meant having a black president. Obama encouraged Americans to vote for the changes they believed in. And for many individuals, change meant protecting the environment and backing off fossil fuels. But how did he hold up to these commitments?

Not too well. 

Obama’s presidential environmental record amounts to raising fuel economy standards and supporting research and development for renewable energy. While he definitely deserves kudos for these two deeds and many minor feats, let’s not close the door yet on his history. Obama’s environmental track record is deep and complicated. Yes, he spurred investments in R&D for renewable energy technologies. But his administration also opened large amounts of land to coal mining in Wyoming and areas to offshore drilling in the Gulf of Mexico and Alaska. Even after the calamity of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010, the Obama administration proceeded with their plans to drill in the Arctic

Decreasing lobbyist influences? No progress there, as polluting industries still rule the lobbying game, manipulating politicians like marionettes. Recently, Obama abandoned the EPA’s proposed Ozone National Ambient Air Quality Standards, delivering a serious blow to the morale of environmental groups and activists across the nation. Now, numerous people anxiously wait to see how Obama responds to the Keystone XL pipeline proposal. His decision may ultimately make or break their vote. 

Where were all the environmental changes? The Obama administration has taken few steps toward the “moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal,” as the president famously stated in his nomination acceptance speech. 

It’s painfully clear that Obama abandoned many of his promises. But how much of it was really his fault? Almost two years into his presidency, Obama faced a huge challenge with the newly elected House of Representatives and Senate. 

The 112th Congress blocked much of Obama’s environmental agenda, destroying his efforts for sustainability and climate justice. It is difficult to place the blame on Obama when it was really Congress that shattered many of his promises. But how did the President respond to the conservative coup? He reacted mostly with impassivity and a slow shift away from his progressive stance. Obama appears to be caving to the short-sighted Republican agenda to protect businesses and the economy over the environment and a stable future.

So where does that leave environmental voters now? On the one side, there’s Obama, who instituted some powerful changes accompanied by many disappointments. But his opponents are much starker in comparison. Obama faces a wall of extremist climate deniers and anti-environmental Republicans. Many of them are intent on bashing the EPA and dismantling environmental policies.

Stuck between Barack and the slate of G.O.P. candidates, a voter has only one viable option: Vote Obama and push for the change he once represented. But this is only step one. Simply settling on a rock over a wall is not enough to survive in a precarious environment. One needs to push that object with all their strength, just as America needs to pressure Obama and hold him accountable to his promises. It’s time to restore the hope and progress. With enough collective force, the future will be secure.

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

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Harrison Goldspiel

I'm a senior at Brandeis University majoring in Environmental Studies. I am interested in a wide range of environmental and public health issues, such as energy and climate change, endangered species protection, water quality, open space preservation, waste management, and agriculture and global food systems. I've worked with a number of environmental organizations and activist groups over the past few years. I'm involved in the New England student coalition for climate change action - Students for a Just and Stable Future/Better Future Project. I've also worked with the New York League of Conservation Voters as a Politics Intern. I spent last semester studying comparative ecology and conservation in Ecuador, with SIT. I'm also an avid reader of Haruki Murakami novels and enjoy hikes and long bike rides.

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