President Obama’s biggest hurdle in taking on environmental challenges may be widespread consumer denial. This doesn’t just include global warming skeptics, although those have been increasingly vocal as the U.S. faced a particularly brutal winter season. Online, global warming naysayers versus global warming alarmists have been duking it out. A post on the blog Politico by staff writer Erika Lovley last November called the science behind global warming “too shaky,” perhaps, to warrant cap-and-trade legislation, quoting some of Congress’ most adamant global warming critics, including Oklahoma Republican Senators Tom Coburn and Jim Inhofe. By the time sites like Grist, The Huffington Post and ClimateProgress had finished debunking the pseudo-science in the piece, they left little but a well-picked carcass behind. But while environmental sites may be winning the battle of the minds online, they haven’t captured the hearts of most Americans.
That’s because, as it turns out, Americans are looking to the president to solve the environmental problems of the day—from fuel shortages to high gas prices, from polluted rivers to asthma-inducing air—and blaming him if he falls short. Even in sunnier economic times such an expectation, to save us from further screwing up the planet and to undo years of poisonous neglect, would be beyond the scope of one man, even one surrounded by a respected “green team” of experts. But the economic picture has hardly ever been more dismal, leaving President Obama with a lot more than just environmental cleanup on his agenda.
An advertising agency called the Shelton Group (they represent clients like BP Solar, Andersen Windows and the American Institute of Architects) released its fourth annual Energy Pulse study this year. It showed, as it has each year, how Americans take little responsibility for their own increased energy use, are mostly unclear as to the real culprits behind global warming and blame the government, not themselves, for rising energy prices. Just 4% of those surveyed knew that coal-fired emissions plants, used for producing electricity, were primarily responsible for the nation’s greenhouse gas emissions (one-third blamed cars and trucks). Although studies show that Americans are using more electricity than ever before, 61% of consumers asked denied it. In another question, 27% blamed the government for high home-energy costs, and a full 90% thought the government should be doing more to wean the nation from fossil fuels. It’s a little akin to consumers holding up a big banner to Obama that reads, “Save Us from Ourselves!”
On that note, the nonprofit League of Conservation Voters (LCV) released a humorous animated video last December called Obama’s Not a Superhero. In it, fat cat oilmen toast wine glasses full of oil as power plants spew thick fumes into the air. Along comes Obama, all ears, who dons a cape, knocks out the oil guys and flies overhead, planting wind turbines as he goes. Then he’s met by a young kid dressed in his own superhero cape. “President-elect Obama has a plan to jump-start America’s economy and solve the climate crisis,” says the video’s final message. “But he can’t do it alone. He needs your support.” LCV then asks viewers to sign the petition to “Repower, Refuel and Rebuild America.”
Oil and coal have roots far too deep in this country to simply slink off into the night under an Obama presidency. What’s needed in changing the nation’s energy direction is the same mass mobilization, and the same collective enthusiasm, that brought Obama to the White House in the first place. Some of it will involve personal sacrifice. Perhaps because energy use and rising fuel prices are so linked to driving in the minds of Americans, belt-tightening is already being felt on the nation’s roadways. Even when gas prices dropped last fall, the Federal Highway Administration reported a 4.4% decline in drivers between the month of September 2008 and the same month in 2007—10.7 billion fewer miles driven. That same impetus hasn’t yet caught on in the nation’s homes, where there is still a disconnect between the amount of electricity used and the pollution produced at a coal-fired plant to keep our lights, computers and Nintendo Wii’s running.
On December 15, 2008, as Obama spoke in Chicago announcing his energy and environment team, he said, “To control our own destiny, America must develop new forms of energy and new ways of using it. This is not a challenge for government alone—it is a challenge for all of us. The pursuit of a new energy economy requires a sustained, all-hands-on-deck effort…” He then went on to chart his administration’s own bold course for energy action, including a plan to spend $15 billion a year to accelerate the production of alternative energy, to improve energy conservation (especially in public buildings), to bring the electricity grid into the modern age and to protect the nation’s national resources. His plan followed with appointments that spoke to his commitment to science-based leadership, particularly in naming Dr. Steven Chu, the Nobel Prize-winning physicist and clean energy expert to the position of Secretary of Energy, and longtime Environmental Protection Agency Administrator (and aide and friend to Al Gore) Carol Browner to a newly created post to coordinate energy and climate policy. He’s doing his part—will we do ours?