Obama: “Change Has Come to America”

Barack ObamaWith the election of Barack Obama, the United States and the world expect a new direction in the fight against climate change.

The choice of Senator Obama - an African-American born in Hawaii, schooled in Indonesia and the United States, and seasoned while fighting for tenant's rights in Chicago's South Side - reflects the diversity that defines America. But it was his well-reasoned approach to policy and messages of hope that won voters - qualities that many say the U.S. government abandoned during George W. Bush's tumultuous administration.

The same values that earned Obama keys to the White House are vital to address the most challenging threats to global sustainability. An international climate change agreement will rely upon American leadership, and the many issues such a treaty involves - population growth, resource depletion, economic disparity - call for international problem-solving and a worldwide commitment to change.

Environmental leaders in the United States and abroad quickly suggested that the election reflected the American people's desire to reverse President Bush's damaging climate change policies. "Today's landslide election of Barack Obama and pro-environment candidates across the country signals a strong rejection of the failed energy policies of the last eight years and a historic mandate for large-scale, transformational change," said Brent Blackwelder, president of Friends of the Earth - U.S.

Yet it was the economy that overwhelmingly dominated voters' minds. More than 60 percent said it was their most important issue, according to exit polls. "Except for younger voters, I'm not sure the environment played such a big role," said Riley Dunlap, an environmental sociologist at Oklahoma State University.

Although climate change was rarely a major campaign issue - questions of carbon reduction levels or renewable energy policies were sparsely debated - several energy policy issues became constant components of campaign speeches. Republican candidate John McCain advocated offshore drilling and nuclear power as paths toward energy independence. Obama, a Democrat, countered with a $150 billion plan to support energy efficiency and renewable energy.

While climate change may not have dominated voters' decisions, Obama's comprehensive energy strategies likely influenced his image as an agent of change. "There's every reason to suggest Obama's commitment to energy policy, renewable energy, and conservation was an asset," Dunlap said.

Aside from the presidential election, voters broadly supported Congressional candidates who advocated greater action on climate change. Among the Democratic Party's gains in both the House of Representatives and the Senate, at least 92 of the 116 candidates endorsed by the League of Conservation Voters (LCV) were victorious.

"With strong new leaders like these, we expect to pass significant global warming and clean energy legislation in the next year," said Gene Karpinski, president of the LCV, an environmental group that campaigns for politicians with the best environmental track record.

With Democratic control of the White House and Congress, policies such as a cap on greenhouse gas emissions, a federal renewable energy portfolio standard, higher fuel efficiency standards, national energy-efficient building codes, and a long-term extension of renewable energy tax credits are all likely.

The election, in combination with a slight rise in oil prices, is already affecting the alternative energy market. The Guardian reported that stock values jumped 30 percent for Solar Integrated Technologies, 22 percent for Renewable Energy Corporation, and 16 percent for wind turbine manufacturer Vestas.  

"With an administration recognizing how important [renewable energy] is, I think that the level of investment both domestically and around the world will go up exponentially in the next few years, just because it's sound economics," said David Hales, president of the College of the Atlantic in Bar Harbor, Maine.

A true indication of the White House's intentions will be Obama's upcoming Cabinet selections. Environmentalist Robert Kennedy, Jr. and former Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection Secretary Kathleen McGinty are rumored as being among the leading candidates for Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) administrator.

Hales, who was director of the U.S. Agency for International Development's Global Bureau during the Clinton administration, said a strong environmentalist appointed to lead the EPA may be less indicative, and meaningful, than whom Obama chooses to lead the Treasury Department or Office of the U.S. Trade Representative. These departments would also be involved in a climate change solution, and they may have greater influence on environmental policies around the globe, he said.

"If Obama appoints a U.S. trade representative who perceives his/her mission as making the world safe for the dollar, then that's a sign that the consistency of the overall Obama strategy is beginning to fall apart," said Hales, a former Worldwatch Institute fellow. "It's much more important to have someone who understands that economies are based in part on a sustainable relationship with the basic resources that underlie the economy."

Ben Block is a staff writer with the Worldwatch Institute. He can be reached at bblock@worldwatch.org.

For permission to reprint this article, please contact Julia Tier at jtier@worldwath.org.