Jan 20, 2009

Good Day, Mr. President

Now that Senator Obama is President Obama, I'll set down my champagne for a moment to briefly digest his environmental past and promises.

In 2006, Obama introduced the Healthy Places Act in Congress, an effort to create accountability by helping local governments assess health impacts of new projects. His website details his new administration's "comprehensive plan to invest in alternative and renewable energy, end our addiction to foreign oil, address the global climate crisis and create millions of new jobs." He also puts some focus on sustainable urban planning.

Grist.com last month set out a review of Obama's environmental policies. Most of these are centered around changes to U.S. energy policy, but the article also includes a few quotes from Obama interviews indicating that his religious faith plays an important role in his outlook on the environment, a fact confirmed in this AP article by Amy Lorentzen.

It's also instructive to read into Obama's picks for environmental and energy policymakers. These folks are not only luminaries in their fields, but clearly bring a bias toward research-based policy, from the reality of climate change (regardless of its origins) to the potential of renewable energy sources. I'm particularly optimistic that under new EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson, both forest and wetland wildlife habitats will be increased.

The ASLA has been optimistic as well that a change of administration will bring a change in priorities. Their site publishes a list of initiatives, as well as proposed angles on the economic stimulus package that will help the profession and the planet.

Our new President has the opportunity — obligation, even — to reform America's farm bill, a la Michael Pollan's recommendations. A couple of weeks after Pollan's letter, Obama was interviewed by TIME and indicated that he had not only read it, but also understood the costs of an agricultural system "built on cheap oil":
    "There is no better potential driver that pervades all aspects of our economy than a new energy economy. I was just reading an article in the New York Times by Michael Pollan about food and the fact that our entire agricultural system is built on cheap oil. As a consequence, our agriculture sector actually is contributing more greenhouse gases than our transportation sector. And in the mean time, it's creating monocultures that are vulnerable to national security threats, are now vulnerable to sky-high food prices or crashes in food prices, huge swings in commodity prices, and are partly responsible for the explosion in our healthcare costs because they're contributing to type 2 diabetes, stroke and heart disease, obesity, all the things that are driving our huge explosion in healthcare costs. That's just one sector of the economy. You think about the same thing is true on transportation. The same thing is true on how we construct our buildings. The same is true across the board."

Obviously there are plenty of pressing issues that will demand President Obama's attention. Even though he has invited our participation to an unprecedented degree, I'm under no delusion that he can (or would) reform all our bad habits with the stroke of a pen. We have sky-high expectations, for sure, and there are plenty of voices more than willing to keep our new Ecologist-In-Chief in check. But I am encouraged that those of us who love our planet now have at least a fighting chance to see some redemption.

Today is a very good day, indeed.

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