In the weeks before he took office, advocates for the environment and conservation lined up to give President Barack Obama their expert advice. The Society for Conservation Biology was among the groups at the December 2008 National Conference on Science Policy and the Environment in Washington, D.C., calling on Obama to make sweeping changes in U.S. policy. Those changes would include finally ratifying the 16-year-old Convention on Biodiversity—a global treaty to protect world ecosystems. It has been signed by 191 countries—but not the U.S. Renowned ecologist and former World Bank Biodiversity Adviser Thomas Lovejoy told the gathering, “The world has been waiting for the U.S. to get its act together.”
After the meeting—attended by hundreds of scientists from government, industry and academia—the Obama-Biden Transition Team reviewed nearly 200 specific steps attendees recommended for swift action, including issuing an Executive Order directing federal agencies to preserve the natural world, with an emphasis on land and water conservation.
Earlier, in November 2008, 29 of the nation’s leading environmental and conservation groups, including the Environmental Defense Fund, National Resources Defense Council and Ocean Conservancy, had asked the new administration to return to something they say was lacking under President Bush: science-based decision-making. “A core piece of the vision is for science to get back into the argument,” said Margie Alt, executive director of Environment America. The coalition called for the nation’s knowledge-leaders to fill key federal roles. In that spirit, the group wrote “Transition to Green,” a 391-page tome with agency-by-agency instructions on positions to create, rules to write and countries to target for global partnerships. “This is a very comprehensive document…in the spirit of participatory democracy and transparency,” said Kevin Knobloch, president of the Union ofConcerned Scientists.
“Transition to Green” sent the incoming president the message that cutting greenhouse gas emissions and supporting renewable energy would create millions of jobs and give the economy a desperately needed jump-start. Obama should encourage Congress to “use an economic revitalization plan to protect our planet,” said Gene Karpinski, president of the League of Conservation Voters.
Economy on Cap
Most of the economic proposals put forward hinged on an entirely new source of revenue: a federal cap-and-trade program. The policy would have Congress cap industry’s output of atmosphere-warming greenhouse gases. Companies would be given “carbon credits’ if emissions dropped below legal limits. The credits could then be traded or auctioned to companies with excess pollution levels.
PepsiCo, Dow, ConocoPhillips, Caterpillar and the “Big Three” automakers were among 26 major U.S. corporations and six green nonprofits that made a cap-and-trade program the cornerstone of their pitch for revitalizing the economy. The coalition called on the incoming president and Congress to pass the legislation that they say is crucial for financing new technologies that, in turn, will generate green jobs. In 2007, the same group announced support for drastic reductions in greenhouse gas emissions—reducing today’s levels by up to 80% over the next 40 years.
Professionals and pundits weren’t the only ones to proffer opinions in the weeks leading up to the inauguration. The Obama-Biden Transition Team had a prominent spot on its web page asking the public to weigh in. Site visitors were asked to “leave comments and ideas for the team.” Some environmental groups want Mr. Obama to harness the power of the Internet for sharing scientific data and to encourage “citizen science.” The biodiversity scientists believe ordinary citizens can assist professionals by monitoring on-site conditions and posting data online.
Congress appeared ready to go forward with new efforts to fight climate disruption. Congressman Jay Inslee (D-CA) told the biodiversity conference, “The enormity of global warming is so overwhelming, all other issues must be subordinate.” But Inslee warned that there would be no “silver bullet” to solving climate and economic issues. He foresaw a “suite of legislative accomplishments,” including a renewable energy portfolio standard, a national high-capacity grid system, green building codes and a fatter budget for technology research and development.
Virginia Democrat James Moran, who serves on the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Interior, Environment and Related Agencies, said Obama “has no time to lose and incredible opportunities.” Moran told scientists, “Hopefully this won’t be a typical stimulus package and will have a greater emphasis on transit and land-use planning, with incentives for freight rail and bike trails. The question is whether we can overcome the political pull for asphalt and concrete.”
Environmental groups were elated to learn in late December that the president-elect had selected Nobel physicist Steven Chu to head the Energy Department, Harvard’s John Holdren—also a physicist and climate scientist—as his science adviser, and marine biologist Jane Lubchenco to run the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. At a news conference an-nouncing Chu’s appointment, Obama said the choice should be seen as a harbinger for change and “send a signal to all that my administration will value science. We will make decisions based on facts, and we understand that the facts demand bold action.”
After meeting the same month with former Vice President Al Gore, the incoming president indicated he will work toward consensus on achieving the twin goals of sustaining a healthy environment and crafting an economic recovery plan, saying it is “not only a problem, it is also an opportunity.” He pledged to bring together stakeholders of all sorts, including businesses and consumers, to craft an “aggressive, bold approach.”