What would you tell Barack Obama?

Supporters and cynics alike have plenty of advice for the new US president, who’s already laid out a broad energy and environmental agenda. Maryann Bird asks what you would recommend.

"Tonight, we celebrate. Tomorrow, the work begins."

That was Barack Obama’s message at a Washington ball just hours after he became president of the United States on January 20. In his inaugural address that day, he noted that “everywhere we look, there is work to be done”, both at home and abroad. High on Obama’s list of tasks requiring “action, bold and swift” were a number of energy and environmental matters.

 “We'll restore science to its rightful place. … We will harness the sun and the winds and the soil to fuel our cars and run our factories,” he pledged, adding: “All this we can do.  All this we will do.” To those who may question the scale of his administration’s ambitions across its broad policy agenda, Obama said: “What the cynics fail to understand is that the ground has shifted beneath them, that the stale political arguments that have consumed us for so long no longer apply.”

Indeed, the new US administration wasted no time in unveiling a comprehensive plan to invest in alternative and renewable energy, to end the United States’ “addiction to foreign oil”, to address the global climate crisis and to help create millions of new “green” jobs.

Obama — who has spoken of “a planet in peril” — says he intends to make the United States a leader on climate change, and to implement an economy-wide cap-and-trade programme to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions 80% by 2050. He would help to create five million new jobs by strategically investing US$150 billion over the next ten years to catalyse private efforts to build a clean energy future.

Many of Obama’s ideas, in fact, had been spelled out previously, during his long campaign for the presidency. And soon after being elected in November 2008, he told a California climate conference: “When I am president, any governor who’s willing to promote clean energy will have a partner in the White House. Any company that’s willing to invest in clean energy will have an ally in Washington. And any nation that’s willing to join the cause of combating climate change will have an ally in the United States of America.”

He would, he said, save more oil within 10 years than the country imports from the Middle East and Venezuela combined; put one million plug-in hybrid cars on the road by 2015; ensure that 10% of US electricity comes from renewable sources by 2012, and 25% by 2025. His administration, Obama said, will crack down on excessive energy speculation; increase fuel-economy standards; establish a national low-carbon fuel standard; promote responsible domestic oil and natural gas production; promote energy efficiency; and develop clean-coal technology and an Alaskan natural-gas pipeline.

To help carry out his policies, Obama has appointed some highly regarded figures to top administration jobs. They include Nobel physicist Steven Chu as energy secretary; former New Jersey environmental chief Lisa Jackson as head of the Environmental Protection Agency; former EPA boss Carol M Browner as assistant to the president for energy and climate change; environmental policy expert John Holdren as assistant for science and technology; and marine ecologist Jane Lubchenco to head the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

After eight years of George W Bush’s widely criticised policies — including repudiating the Kyoto Protocol and casting doubt on significant climate-change science — much is expected of Obama. Cynics and supporters alike have lost no time in telling the president what they’d like to see him do.

James E Hansen is head of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies (GISS) and one of the world’s top climate scientists. He and his wife, Anniek, recently sent Obama and his wife, Michelle, a long “open letter” – written as “fellow parents concerned about the earth that will be inherited by our children, grandchildren and those yet to be born”. It contains three recommendations: a moratorium and phase-out of coal plants that do not capture and store carbon dioxide; raising the price on carbon emissions via a carbon tax with a 100% dividend to the public; and urgent research and development on fourth-generation nuclear power, with international cooperation.

Timothy E Wirth, president of the United Nations Foundation, wants to see Obama’s administration led the way to a new global climate deal in Copenhagen in December. “Notwithstanding strong commitments by the European Union,” he told the journal Nature, “the rest of the world has been adrift, waiting for the United States to wake up from its eight-year sleep. This new American engagement must start with China. The world’s two largest emitters have both the capacity and the need to take action, and finding ways to move forwards together would make a broader global agreement achievable.”

Agreement can be reached in Copenhagen, Wirth says, on “the basic elements of a deal – commitments by industrialised countries to emissions targets, credit for avoided deforestation, financial support for adaptation and technology development, along with commensurate actions by rapidly developing countries.”

Asked what he would say if he could have inserted a paragraph in Obama’s inaugural address, Jeffrey Sachs, director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University,  told the Guardian: “Our generation's unique challenge is to live peacefully and sustainably on a crowded planet. I commit America to work with all the world to end extreme poverty in our generation, convert to sustainable energy and ecosystem use, and stabilise the world's population by 2050, before our numbers and resource demands overwhelm the planet and our fragile capacity to co-operate. Our wars are distractions from these challenges; today's enemies will become tomorrow's partners in shared prosperity.”

Asked by the Worldwatch Institute what his message to Obama would be, the chairman of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), Rajendra K Pachauri, said: “I would tell him he has the unique opportunity of saving a large part of the human species and several others, because unless the US takes the lead, I’m afraid we will not get an adequate global response. In [the] absence of that, there will obviously be climate change that will go unmitigated. And we’re pretty close to the stage where impacts start to turn very serious and very negative.”

A lot of weight on one man’s shoulders? “Well, he ran for the presidency of the United States, so he assumed the responsibility,” as Pachauri noted.


What would you tell Barack Obama if you had the opportunity? Can he lead the United States and the world in reaching a consensus on sustainable solutions to climate and energy problems? How can the United States and China work together on curbing greenhouse gases?

Let us know on the forum.


Maryann Bird is associate editor of chinadialogue.

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