In Obama Election Victory A New Test of “Governmental Progress Of Humanity”

In Marietta, Ohio, where many authors of the Northwest Territories Ordinance settled, and in the state that twice secured President Obama’s election, a historical marker reminds Americans of our political intelligence. Photo/Keith Schneider

In 2008, on the eve of his election to the presidency, Barack Obama greeted a huge and bouyant crowd in Chicago with this invocation to unity:

“This is our time – to put our people back to work and open doors of opportunity for our kids; to restore prosperity and promote the cause of peace; to reclaim the American Dream and reaffirm that fundamental truth – that out of many, we are one; that while we breathe, we hope, and where we are met with cynicism, and doubt, and those who tell us that we can’t, we will respond with that timeless creed that sums up the spirit of a people: Yes We Can.”

Early Wednesday, after he’d swept through the swing states, caused a Rovian fit on Fox’s election night coverage, and was elected to his second term, President Obama reminded us again about his grace, his temperament, his fairness. It’s why the majority of Americans hold Obama — a bit worn, a little chastened, still determined — in such regard:

“Tonight, despite all the hardship we’ve been through, despite all the frustrations of Washington, I’ve never been more hopeful about our future. I have never been more hopeful about America. And I ask you to sustain that hope. I’m not talking about blind optimism, the kind of hope that just ignores the enormity of the tasks ahead or the roadblocks that stand in our path. I’m not talking about the wishful idealism that allows us to just sit on the sidelines or shirk from a fight.

I have always believed that hope is that stubborn thing inside us that insists, despite all the evidence to the contrary, that something better awaits us so long as we have the courage to keep reaching, to keep working, to keep fighting.”

Walt Whitman saw Abraham Lincoln as “the grandest figure on the crowded canvas of the drama of the 19th century.”  I keep coming up with an image of Lincoln when I consider Obama. The pictures of the president returning to Washington yesterday reminded me of the Civil War president – slim, resolute, shoulders bent with burden. Like Lincoln, Obama presides over a nation divided, fighting a pitched ideological war, much of it centered around racism and intolerance, and its blistering heart firmly beating in the states of the Deep South.

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Blue Green Alliance and Apollo Alliance To Merge

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Last week the Apollo Alliance and the BlueGreen Alliance,  two of the most important national non-profits supporting clean energy development and good jobs, announced that as of July 1 they would merge. The much larger Minneapolis-based BlueGreen Alliance, a five-year-old collaboration of big green groups and unions, will become the parent of San Francisco-based Apollo, which was founded in 2003 and gained its renown for being the first organization to understand that the transition to an economy primarily fueled by something other than oil and coal could produce a flurry of useful  results — jobs, climate action, energy security, and industrial innovation.

The merger is good for both organizations. It consolidates Apollo’s strong policy work with its parent’s considerable networking strength in states and in Washington, D.C. It also reflects the need for one big progressive voice touting the benefits of clean energy in an era, hopefully temporary, in which national interest and public investment in solar, wind, geothermal, and other renewable and non-fossil alternatives is in treacherous decline.

That’s because the right — heavily financed by big oil, gas, coal, and utilities — loathes what it calls government intrusion in the market, and sees no justification for curbing carbon emissions because it is convinced climate change is a scientific hoax. At the grassroots, it’s no better. Civic coalitions that defy conventional description — joining left, right, and centrist activists —  have formed hundreds of campaigns in more than 35 states that are devoted to killing renewable energy projects they regard as just too damn big.

China, meanwhile, has no such problem. By the end of the decade, China will produce over 700 gigawatts of electricity from wind, hydro, nuclear, and solar. If that kind of development occurred in the U.S. it would amount to roughly 65 percent to 70 percent of our projected electrical generating capacity in 2020. Hundreds of thousands of jobs have developed in China’s clean energy and non-fossil fuel sectors.

Meanwhile the United States is busier than it’s been in decades perpetuating the domestic fossil fuel economy. Big oil last year spent $100 billion accelerating a hydrocarbon boom at the center of the continent. Canadian tar sands have become the largest single source of oil imports to America. An extensive new oil and gas transport and processing infrastructure is under construction from Alberta, Canada through the Great Plains, Rocky Mountain West, Great Lakes states and on to the Gulf Coast. It includes new pipelines, as well as modernized and expanded refineries. Hundreds of the nation’s heavy onshore drill rigs are tapping oil and natural gas in the northern Great Plains in shale formations nearly two miles deep. North Dakota looks to be on the way to supplanting Texas as the number one oil producer among the states.

I know a little bit more about the Blue Green-Apollo merger than your average bear because I worked at Apollo for 16 months in 2008 and 2009,  as communications director, when the “clean energy, good jobs” message attained a rare salience in policy circles and electoral politics. The email message announcing the merger, sent on Thursday by Apollo Chairman Phil Angelides, reminded me of those heady days and especially one morning meeting in Denver that synthesized the movement’s influence at the time.

It was the second day of the Democratic National Convention and a select group of America’s senior labor and environmental leaders met for an hour with T. Boone Pickens, the Texas oil billionaire who’d announced a month earlier his interest in investing a good portion of his fortune in wind power. I attended the meeting for the Apollo Alliance and documented some of the participants in the picture above — (right to left) Rich Trumka, now president of the AFL-CIO, Leo Gerard, head of the United Steelworkers, Carl Pope, then the executive director of the Sierra Club, and Bracken Hendricks of the Center For American Progress. And in the picture on the right of T. Boone Pickens.boone-pickens1

When T. Boone Pickens articulates much the same thing as the leader of the Sierra Club, never mind a major party presidential nominee, that’s a conversation you don’t forget. Quite a few of the people who’d helped tee up the United States for what looked to be a momentous transition were gathered at that table. Bracken Hendricks, an author and capable strategist, was the founding executive director of the Apollo Alliance. Carl Pope and Leo Gerard were Apollo board members and in 2006 founded the BlueGreen Alliance, a joining of the Sierra Club and the Steelworkers. Rich Trumka, who once headed the United Mineworkers Union, was talking jobs in the same breath he mentioned wind and solar energy.

Emily Dickinson once called hope “the thing with feathers that perches in the soul.” In 2008 and 2009, clean energy looked to be an idea set to soar. Barack Obama campaigned on “clean energy, good jobs” message and won the nomination and presidency. Congress passed a $787 billion stimulus bill in February 2009 that contained $100 billion or so for renewable energy, energy efficiency, transit, and other clean energy initiatives. The House, in June 2009, beat back a fierce assault from the fossil fuel industry and passed a comprehensive energy bill that was the first time a chamber of Congress set mandatory limits on greenhouse gas emissions. Clean energy and climate action were prominent ideas in global economic and diplomatic meetings, including the Pittsburgh G-20 conference in September 2009, and the U.N. climate summit in Copenhagen in December 2009.

In the 18 months since the Copenhagen climate summit, the clean energy and climate action messages have been in eclipse. Foundations and advocacy organizations are searching for new tools to revive the public’s interest. Jeff Nesbit, the former director of the Office of Legislative and Public Affairs at the National Science Foundation, just accepted the executive director’s post at Climate Nexus, a New York-based climate and clean energy communications group formed by a consortium of big philanthropies. The newly merged Blue Green Alliance has a big job ahead of it, too. We wish them well.

— Keith Schneider

John Adams Awarded Presidential Medal of Freedom

Congratulations are in order for John H. Adams, the co-founder of the Natural Resources Defense Council, who yesterday was named one of the 15 recipients this year of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian award. Adams is the first founder of an American environmental advocacy organization to receive the award since Russell E. Train was similarly honored in 1991. Train, of course, was a founding board member of the World Wildlife Fund and the second administrator of the E.P.A.John H. Adams, NRDC

Adams said this in response to the announcement: “For forty years I’ve been privileged to live out my passion, standing up for the natural inheritance that belongs to us all. In receiving this great honor today, I stand on the shoulders of a remarkable NRDC team, and of Americans everywhere, who love this country and believe we share a common duty to safeguard the waters that nourish us, the wildlife that inspires us, the air that sustains us and the land we call home. This is our country. It is ours to cherish; it is ours to protect. That is how we keep faith with future generations. And I thank the President for recognizing this high calling and the contribution I’ve been privileged to make.”

Adams, who like other eminent figures worthy of such distinction, is one of the most approachable and level-headed men you’ll ever meet. As an environmental journalist I’ve been in his company a number of times over the years, riled his staff with some of my reporting, and conducted several interviews. He was always smart, cordial, and friendly. The organization he founded in 1970 is, arguably, the most important environmental advocate in the world now, a green organizational titan with an annual budget exceeding $100 million, and with offices across the country and as far as Beijing. He is the ninth environmentalist to receive the award joining Rachel Carson and Marjory Stoneman Douglas, among others.

The NRDC’s culture reflects the steady persistence and optimism of its founder. It helped to shape and defend the first-of-its-kind national environmental law and regulatory program that significantly reduced the damaging effects of industrialization and dramatically expanded the country’s will to preserve land, wild habitat, and natural diversity. In doing so Adams essentially led the team of lawyers and policy specialists who wrote the chapters of modern environmentalism that changed the nation and the world for the better.

Adams left NRDC in 2006,  just about the time that climate change was emerging as a political priority and environmental emergency that would eventually outrun the tools and tactics that had proven so successful in his era of environmentalism. No doubt he is offering advice, but it is up to those younger than Adams to figure out how to push back against the money and power of the fossil fuel industry, and convince the world a safer path lies in cleaner energy alternatives. Adams’ life and career, though, exemplify the most important lessons for success on solving global warming. Never quit. Never lie. Never stop moving forward.

– Keith Schneider

Amid Turbulence A Path For Climate Action

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Maybe things aren’t as dismaying as we thought a week ago. Or just a little less in the dismay department.

In the last few days, two of the prominent names in American politics and business appeared to reach consistent conclusions about governing, technology, and the warming climate.

On Friday, Karl Rove told an audience of natural gas developers in Texas that “climate is gone” as a Congressional issue. And this week, in a Rolling Stone interview, Bill Gates said it will take a breath-taking leap in innovation to meet rising global energy demand and still cut climate-changing pollution. “To have the kind of reliable energy we expect and to have it be cheaper and zero carbon,” said the Microsoft chairman, “we need to pursue every available path to achieve a really big breakthrough.”

Rove and Gates view the crisis from alternate sides of the political spectrum, of course. But in succinctly describing the problem they also indirectly set out a path for climate activism that involves much greater grassroots agitation to win elections, and higher levels of publicly-funded support for clean energy research and development.

Tactics
Both facets of that tactical strategy are within reach. In Washington, the results of the election, while damaging, also left enough sympathetic lawmakers in place to make some progress on the clean energy investment front. Democratic lawmakers intent on making a difference on climate and energy retained their chairmanships in the Senate. And of the 56 members of the Congressional Sustainable Energy and Environment Coalition, just seven House and one Senate member lost their bids for reelection. “It should be clear,” said Sam Ricketts, the coalition’s executive director, “that a vote for cap and trade and ardent support for a cleaner environment were not the target of voter anger that many opposed to these policies might lead you to believe.”

In addition, the most important and telling vote for climate action in the country was the strong majority result to enforce the emissions reduction and energy efficiency goals of AB32, California’s climate law. In a game changing marriage of superior campaign financing, message development, and grassroots activism, climate advocates and clean energy venture capitalists outspent, out-organized, and soundly beat the oil industry in a crucial vote.

A New Opening
Climate activists in and outside Washington, who nearly a year ago anticipated a big diplomatic advance in Copenhagen, are justifiably worn by the reverse momentum in the 11 months since. But in the past week, my conversations around the U.S. indicate a resolve among activists to dig deeper and be prepared for a new opening.

That could come sooner than any of us think.

No matter how tightly the fossil fuel industry wraps itself around lawmakers in state capitols and on Capitol Hill, there is still the one motivating electoral factor it cannot control – the American response to rising gasoline prices. The global knife edge that describes the tightening supplies and increasing demand for oil will inevitably tip toward $4-a- gallon gas or higher, say energy industry analysts. When that happens, perhaps in the next year, climate activists need to be ready to identify the culprits who blocked the cheaper and cleaner alternatives and the jobs, prosperity, and safety they would have produced.

— Keith Schneider

In Tianjin, Fresh Hope For Climate Progress

Tianjin Meijiang Convention and Exhibition Center

TIANJIN, China – In a gesture that signaled more urgent engagement to cool the planet, the United Nation’s chief climate negotiator today opened this nation’s first international climate conference by sealing a symbolic Great Climate Wall of China with an ancient proverb. Christiana Figueres, a Costa Rican diplomat and climate expert, who in May was named the new executive secretary for the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) stamped the proverb – “with everyone’s determination, we can win anything” – on a mosaic wall of 4,000 portaits of people from China and around the world concerned about the increasing evidence of the warming climate.

“The symbolism of this mural is significant,” said Figueres. “Addressing climate change is not just about governments working collectively. It’s also about all of us working collectively and deciding what kind of stamp we want to leave on human history.”

The six-day Tianjin meeting, which ends on Saturday, is the latest opportunity for 3,000 participants from 176 nations to make progress on a global climate agreement, and sets the tone for the annual two-week UNFCCC climate summit, which this year occurs from November 29 to December 10 in Cancun, Mexico. The conference is being held in the brand new and immense 230,000-square meter Meijiang Convention and Exhibition Center (see pix above), which opened earlier this year after just 8 months of construction, according to conference organizers.

Activism Supported By UN
Figueres described the need to make the transition from the individual actions that nations are taking to reduce global warming to collective global steps that can be formalized in a binding treaty. Her participation today in an event organized by the Global Campaign For Climate Action (GCCA), Tck tck tck, and Greenpeace was clearly intended to signal a new resolve at the United Nations to generate more political and public attention on the actions countries are taking to reduce carbon emissions. UNFCCC Executive Secretary Christiana Figueres Seals Great Climate WallWith her animated support for more civic activism, Figueres’ unmistakable message is to encourage public activism as a tool to push negotiators to a binding agreement. She also sought to spotlight the broad international support among citizens at the grassroots, including 350.org’s Global Work Party on October 10, which has organized nearly 6,000 events in 183 countries

Her tone and tilt are a departure from her more cautious predecessor, Danish diplomat Yvo de Boer. Figueres called the GCCA’s international work to mobilize citizens for climate action “important, significant, and impressive,” and concluded her remarks with this: “Thank you for the inspiration. I will take it into the negotiations this week.”

Government negotiators and non-governmental organizations said today that the Tianjin and Cancun meetings could produce enough progress for legal decisions that launch a global system to preserve forests, establish a financial system to coordinate adaptation and emissions reduction projects, formalize emissions reductions commitments, and establish a system to review progress toward those goals. The question is whether the Cancun meeting will set a stronger negotiating foundation that can lead to a formal international agreement between all nations in time for the 2011 climate summit in South Africa or the 2012 summit in South Korea.

Though the United States and China, the two largest carbon polluters, have been reluctant to set a binding global emissions limit, there is evidence that nations want to reach that goal. Last year in Copenhagen, heads of state and climate negotiators from 28 countries that are responsible for 80 percent of climate-changing emissions developed the Copenhagen Accord. The accord is a political agreement that indicates nations individually and collectively should check carbon emissions sufficiently to limit the rise in global temperature to less than 2 degrees Centigrade. In the accord, which was reached on the last day of the Copenhagen summit, developed nations also committed to provide $30 billion from 2010 to 2012 to assist developing nations make the transition from a carbon-based to a clean energy economy.

Hope and  Evidence That Nations Are Moving Steadily Toward Big Steps
This month, the UNFCC reported that 139 nations, including the 27-member European Union, have agreed to the accord or have expressed their intent to sign on, The UNFCCC reported in March that it received submissions of national pledges to cut or limit emissions of greenhouse gases by 2020 from 75 countries, which account for all but 20 percent of global emissions. In addition 41 industrialized countries formally communicated their economy-wide targets and 35 developing countries have “communicated information on the nationally appropriate actions they are planning, provided they receive the appropriate support in terms of finance and technology.”

In an interview in March, Yvo de Boer, the outgoing UNFCCC executive secretary who managed the Copenhagen climate summit, said, “You can argue that while Copenhagen failed in a legal sense, it was a success in a political sense. The question is now how you take that forward.”

There are as many answers sweeping through Tianjin’s modern and vast conference hall here as negotiators and participants. The focus, as it was in Copenhagen and will be in Cancun is action on climate warming that can be formalized in a written agreements. This week negotiators and the world will gain more insight into what nations are willing to do to accelerate the clean energy economy, reduce the cutting in the world’s forests, and adapt to warming temperatures.

And just as it’s been in the previous meetings over the last several years, China and the United States will suck up most of this week’s attention and concern. There is good reason for that. It’s true that India is acting to reduce its carbon emissions and is expanding solar power, Mexico is adopting new vehicle efficiency standards, and the European Union invested $41 billion last year in clean energy and more than half of the continents new power production in 2009 came from renewable energy sources.

China and U.S. Center of Attention
Still, China and the U.S. are collectively pursuing a kind of schizophrenic energy and climate strategy that by necessity commands the world’s focus.

China’s energy consumption last year was the world’s highest, equivalent to 2.3 billion tons of oil, 0.4 percent more than the U.S. energy consumption, according to the International Energy Agency. Moreover, demand for energy is rising faster in China than any country, and it is the largest producer of climate emissions, according to the Energy Information Administration, a unit of the U.S. Department of Energy. And though Chinese officials say they are meeting the goal, announced last year in Copenhagen, of a 40 to 45 percent reduction in carbon intensity by 2020, an analysis by the Natural Resources Defense Council concludes that China’s carbon emissions will essentially double over the decade to more than 12 billion tons a year.

The basic reason is that even as China invested $35.6 billion last year in clean energy development, announced closures of hundreds of inefficient coal-fired power plants, and became the unmistakable global leader in solar manufacturing, it also said it will increase coal production by 2020 to over 4.2 billion metric tons annually, an increase of 33 percent from the 3.15 billion tons the country will mine and consume this year, according to the China National Coal Association. China produces and burns more coal than any other country -three times more than the U.S. – and coal supplies 70 percent of the nation’s total energy demand.

The U.S. meanwhile passed legislation in 2009 to invest roughly $100 billion in clean energy development, energy efficiency, and fuel-saving transit, and became the largest generator of wind energy in the world. The Environmental Protection Agency, acting at the direction of the White House, formalized in April new rules to significantly improve fuel mileage efficiency in vehicles and light trucks that will conserve energy and contribute substantially to lower carbon emissions, which have been going down in the U.S. since 2008, according to the Energy Information Administration, a unit of the Department of Energy. Yet conservatives in the House and Senate insist that climate change is a scientific fraud, candidates are running this year on campaigns to block any national effort to curb emissions, and the American oil industry is spending an estimated $100 billion annually to perpetuate the fossil fuel era by developing “unconventional” sources of oil and natural gas from tar sands and deep shales that produce more carbon emissions than “conventional” fuel sources.

For both nations, the negotiations about limiting carbon emissions is impeded by economic priorities. Clearly both countries embrace the existing fossil fuel economy as essential to national stability and well-being. Both countries also are pursuing clean energy development; China produces seven percent of its energy from renewable sources; the U.S. produces eight percent.

What’s troublesome is that while the Obama administration continues to press hard for new jobs and investment in the clean energy sector, the U.S. Congress does not seem to view the opportunities from pursuing low-carbon clean energy development as clearly as China’s leaders appear to at the moment.

“A decade ago China made one percent of the world’s solar panels,” said Representative Edward Markey, a Democrat of Massachusetts, in September during a House hearing of the Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming. “Today it makes nearly half of them. The $15 billion worth of solar panels China exported last year was more valuable than America’s corn, beef, and chicken exports combined. China is no longer coming. They are here. They ate our lunch, and they are moving on to our dinner.”

This week China is putting on display a number of its clean-tech breakthroughs in coal production and clean technology manufacturing. The U.S. Climate Action Network has organized several tours of facilities later in the week. We’ll bring you reports from each.

— Keith Schneider, with additional reporting from Jonathan Adams

Coal plant plume in Tianjin, China