Obama backburners the environmental movement

Darryl Hannah arrested outside White House

Successful politicians exploit, buy off, and sell out the movements that animate their campaigns.  And Barack Obama has been a successful politician.

Partly because of his soaring campaign rhetoric, partly because of his personal background, and partly because of his rather limited record in American politics, social movements of the left organized around Barack Obama’s candidacy as a gain all by itself.  (When he and his primary opponent, Hillary Clinton, detailed specific plans, Clinton’s were consistently more liberal.)  The election of a president named Barack, rather than George or Bill or John or James symbolically promised a great break with the past.  Activists imagined a similarly dramatic break with the past on policy matters.

And they were disappointed.

Supporters of health care reform lamented the absence of a public option in the president’s bill; civil libertarians continue to wait for President Obama to make good on his promise to close the prison at Guantanamo Bay.  Gay and lesbian activists steamed when he put the repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell” on a slow track; immigration activists mobilized while he failed to offer any comprehensive reform bill, and seemed to invest little in the DREAM Act.  Peace activists watched the dollars and casualties roll on up in Iraq and Afghanistan.  And environmentalists have seen little progress on the greener economy candidate Obama promised.

Once in office, like most politicians, Barack Obama has focused more on the voters he thinks might stray than those he assumes he can take for granted.  He tacked back to push for policy reforms on gay and lesbian rights and immigration, because he saw the prospects of gains in policy or politics.  But he’s left environmentalists hanging, on issues big and small.

And what are they to do?  President Obama, in contrast to almost all of the Republican presidential aspirants, says that he believes that human activity is contributing to climate change, and that human action can help ameliorate the adverse impact of changing climate.  Will the environmentalists desert him?  For whom?  The environmental movement is largely comprised of the educated middle-class, who tend to vote, but they’re unlikely to defect to anyone who can get the Republican nomination.  Obama seems to count on this.

So, some have begun to protest, to try to exert pressure and to keep their issues alive.  More than 1,000 activists have been arrested outside the White House so far, pointing to climate change in general as they oppose the specific authorization of a pipeline from Canada to Texas that would carry crude oil.

The Tar Sands Action group has staged repeated civil disobedience actions on the President’s doorstep, deploying celebrities in the movement, like writer Bill McKibben and NASA scientist, James Hansen, who have been crusading for action on climate change for years, and celebrities whose fame sometimes extends beyond the movement, like actress Darryl Hannah, above.

Meanwhile, with the environmentalists being hauled away outside, President Obama announced that he had ordered the EPA to abandon efforts to tighten controls on ozone in the air, even as his administrator, Lisa Jackson, had announced that current standards were inadequate and legally indefensibleAl Gore has endorsed the civil disobedience action, criticizing the president along the way:

Instead of relying on science, President Obama appears to have bowed to pressure from polluters who did not want to bear the cost of implementing new restrictions on their harmful pollution—even though economists have shown that the US economy would benefit from the job creating investments associated with implementing the new technology. The result of the White House’s action will be increased medical bills for seniors with lung disease, more children developing asthma, and the continued degradation of our air quality.

Explicitly, the President has announced that he will postpone regulating environmental pollution to focus on short-term gains in jobs, a trade-off Republicans have been unwilling to make on the deficit.

Environmentalists have yet to find a way to exert effective political pressure.  As the campaign intensifies, absent a primary opponent for the president, they are unlikely to be able to do so.

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About David S. Meyer

Author and professor of Sociology and Political Science at the University of California, Irvine
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