WHAT DO PROFESSIONAL ECOLOGISTS SAY ABOUT OBAMA'S ELECTION?

by Whit Gibbons

November 16, 2008


The Ecological Society of America (ESA), the world's largest society of professional ecologists, which includes college teachers and research ecologists, has released a special postelection edition of the ESA Policy News Update. The update provides perspectives on the possible environmental focus and initiatives of the new president and his administration.

"President-elect Barack Obama has consistently highlighted the importance and immediacy of government action on energy and the environment." Following the election he identified climate change as one of "the greatest challenges facing Americans." Obama has made clear that he recognizes that improving energy and environmental programs must be done in concert with overcoming the economic crisis facing America and the world. The ESA update identifies several areas that will be addressed in order to achieve an acceptable balance between economic and environmental health.

One proposal is to pass legislation to "reduce carbon emissions to 80% below 1990 levels by 2050." Industries will be given strong economic incentives to install cleaner technology. The proposed system, which is a complex one requiring government oversight, has some shortcomings, but it is far better than unregulated contamination. The unregulated approach may be cheaper for the industry, but it is environmentally costly to the public and not in the best interests of anyone beyond a few profit makers.

An economic stimulus package is highly likely under programs that "would create jobs by financing new energy policies and [infrastructure] development." An initiative to reduce energy consumption in homes and offices by offering tax incentives for insulating and protecting buildings from the weather would be one approach. Proposals have been made to update the nation's electric power transmission grid and to encourage effective mass-transit systems. Also, promoting technology to take advantage of renewable energy such as wind, solar, and geothermal will be in the forefront of new directions. All sound like good investments to me, both economically and environmentally.

The appointments made by the new administration will have far-reaching effects on energy policies and the environment. Obama's choice for chairman of the Council on Environmental Quality, who will be the environmental policy adviser to the president, will play a critical role in establishing the country's environmental course. Changes in leadership at the EPA and the departments of Interior and Energy will set new directions for these groups. Those positions ought to be held by individuals who have no other agenda than to promote the best interests of the country, and political objectives should never trump scientific evidence. I doubt that Obama will appoint to any of those positions someone who has strong personal and economic ties to the oil, gas, and coal industries. Certainly, that hasn't worked too well for us in the past.

In light of the change in administration and the new congressional makeup, the ESA public affairs committee has indicated that the society plans to promote four environmental areas in addition to having a strong stance on climate change policies that reduce carbon emissions nationally and globally. The areas of focus are science education, energy development, improvement in both water quality and quantity, and endangered species. The new administration in Washington is expected to shift current directions in these areas during the course of addressing the need for economic changes.

The dilution of the Endangered Species Act during the past few years will be an area addressed by the new president. According to the ESA update, Obama will "throw out the Bush Administration proposal" of letting federal agencies disregard scientific review when deciding whether government projects would threaten endangered species. Strengthening the act can only be good for the environment, and having science-based decision making is difficult to argue with.

Whatever environmental policy changes the next administration makes, not everyone is going to be happy. However, our long-term existence depends on achieving a balance between economic growth and the environment. One thing I would prefer not to hear is how putting an emphasis on the environment will threaten the economy. We have listened to that mantra for many a year. And few people would say the economy is in great shape right now. So let's try the environmental approach for awhile. We just might end up with a healthier environment and a stronger economy.



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