The 2012 Election and the Environment

The Democratic and GOP conventions are now over and both have produced very distinct written platforms.   I decided to actually read each of the parties’ documents and compare them, specifically in the area of environmental policy. (Don’t be too impressed…it is pretty light reading! )  I have to say while I anticipated some of the differences, I was fairly shocked at how stark the contrast was.  The Democratic platform is far from perfect on its environmental coverage, but compared to the GOP platform, they seem downright progressive!    I think I can suffice to say that If you care about the environment  (ie: clean air, clean water, addressing climate change, healthy food…)  the GOP is not for you. I think  Steven Colbert summed up Romney’s position on environmental policy perfectly.      

                            So let’s stick with the Dems.

How have the Democrats done in the last four years and what is being proposed for the next four?

Let’s examine what our most pressing environmental issues are. When Whit Gibbons, Professor Emeritus of Ecology at the University of Georgia, asked two dozen ecology graduate students what the top environmental problems were, he came up with a list that included:

  • Invasive plants and animals
  • Pollution of Marine Habitats
  • Air Pollution
  • Unsustainable Agriculture
  • Threat of Disease
  • Water Quality and Quantity
  • Habitat Loss Fragmentation and Degradation
  • Overpopulation
  • Global Climate Change

So how are these problems being addressed?  Well, we can cross out four of them from the start.

  • Invasive Plants and Animals
  • Threat of disease  (from an environmental perspective)
  • Unsustainable Agriculture
  • Overpopulation

are never addressed in the Democratic platform.

In the case of  unsustainable agriculture,  this is a monumental loss of opportunity.  Our current food system is devastating our environment and economy while ruining our health and well-being.  An overhaul of the food system could help save our environment  and enrich our lives.  Unfortunately, there is not much “hope and change” in this platform, or in the record of the last four years.  The platform’s section on rural communities and agriculture  includes the bragging point that “U.S. biofuel production is at its highest level in history.”  This misguided policy is hardly something to brag about!  It has been widely proven that biofuel made from corn and rapeseed actually generates more greenhouse  gases than diesel, and the conversion of food crops for fuel has caused the suffering, displacement and starvation of poor around the world.

The platform also supports a proposed increase of  “funding for research and development to improve agricultural productivity and continue to pursue global food security.”  This is most likely a reference to funding Obama’s buddies in bio-tech. The big players here are the so-called “Big Six” agrichemical companies—Monsanto, Syngenta, Dow Agrosciences, BASF, Bayer, and Pioneer (DuPont). They have a huge global presence, but the biotech-friendly US is their profit center.  Tom Philpott  writes in Mother Jones that  “two things could mess up the Big 6 here in the US:

  1.  any delay in the regulatory process for a new generation of seeds engineered for resistance to multiple herbicides
  2. any major move to require labeling of foods containing GMOs…”

Regulation and labeling fall under the jurisdiction of the USDA and FDA respectively,  and big business fully understands the role these agencies play. When asked about the regulatory philosophy at Monsanto, Phil Angell, director  of corporate communications, declared that  “Monsanto should not have to vouchsafe the safety of biotech food. Our interest is in selling as much of it as possible. Assuring its safety is FDA’s job.”  The trouble is,  it doesn’t seem like biotech wants the FDA and USDA to do their job. Since 1999 they have spent more than half a billion dollars lobbying Congress not to regulate genetically engineered crops.  They have also heavily contributed to politicians campaigns…including Obama’s.  How is this paying off?

  • In 2009, much to the disgust of many of his supporters, Obama appointed Michael Taylor, a former vice president for Monsanto, as a senior advisor for the FDA.  Cries of the “fox guarding the hen house” were ignored.
  • In 2011,  as detailed in a piece by Robbie Hanna Anderman for,  “Obama pushed the Secretary of Agriculture and the USDA to deregulate genetically engineered alfalfa and sugar beets in the United States. The USDA came through as he directed, totally deregulating these Monsanto-patented genes in early February. In so doing, Obama and the USDA have chosen to override and ignore decisions and injunctions made by the U.S. Supreme Court that banned planting of genetically engineered alfalfa and sugar beets without consideration of the Environmental Impact Assessments, which showed high risks to organic and conventional (chemical) farmers.”   Since sugar beets provide over 50% of the sugar we Americans use and alfalfa is used widely in animal feed and to enrich soil in organic farming, “Obama’s push for deregulation potentially also means the end of the organic meat and organic dairy industries as we presently know them. Essentially, he is choosing to favor the profits of big agribusiness over the survival of America’s family farmers, and especially America’s organic farmers.”
  • Despite his campaign promises to label GMO’s, Obama has done nothing to promote labeling and neither has his FDA.  Mind you, 91% of voters favor labeling.  With such overwhelming support obviously cutting  through partisan lines, it is hard to imagine why Obama has failed to keep his promise.  Many who voted for him feel betrayed, …or maybe we were misguided from the beginning. Perhaps as Anderman posits, “When Obama cried, “Yes, we can!” he obviously was speaking for a different “we” than those who voted for him imagined.”

Looks like big bad agribusiness is breathing a little easier with the President on their side.

billb1961 / Free Photos

The unhealthy food coming out of our current food system has been contributing to a myriad of health problems including childhood obesity. The Obama administration, with the help of First Lady Michelle Obama, initially seemed to be strong advocates for children.  Unfortunately, according to a Duff Wilson and Janet Roberts’ article for Reuters, “In the political arena, one side is winning the war on child obesity.  The side with the fattest wallets.”  After intense lobbying, “the White House all but abandoned a multi-agency effort that recommended healthier food be marketed to children,” according to Wilson and Roberts.   Only two years ago Michelle Obama was telling the Grocery Manufacturers Association that they needed  “to step it up.”  She demanded that “we need you not just to tweak around the edges but to entirely rethink the products that you’re offering, the information that you provide about these products and how you market those products to our children.”  By last November however, “Mrs. Obama was praising the manufacturers for product improvements.”   The First Lady (with free advertising from broadcasters)  was now emphasizing not choice of food but exercise. This is just what the companies that lobbied against stricter food guidelines wanted.  Kelly D. Brownell, a Yale professor and director of the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity, said he believes the First Lady has become too friendly with industry even as she has been a passionate, effective advocate for healthier food and exercise.” He continues that “with the Citizens United case and the companies being able to lobby almost without limit, it’s not surprising that the White House is more friendly toward the industry.”  Margo Wootan, director of nutrition policy at the Center for Science in the Public Interest had a similar view: “I’d focus more on exercise, too, if my husband was up for re-election.”

Meanwhile, according Wilson and Roberts, “Congress declared pizza a vegetable to protect it from a nutritional overhaul of the school lunch program this year. The White House kept silent last year as Congress killed a plan by four federal agencies to reduce sugar, salt and fat in food marketed to children.”

On the upside,  the Democratic platform does address:

  • Air pollution
  • Water pollution and quality
  • Protecting public lands
  • Protecting environmental standards in global trade
  • Climate Change

Air Pollution: The platform states that  “President Obama has taken the most significant strides in decades to cut pollution and advance public health—protecting our children and communities from harmful pollution by restoring and advancing safeguards for clean air and water and by working to reduce carbon pollution. Pollutants like nitrogen oxides, sulfur dioxide, particulate matter, and mercury are a threat to human health, and Democrats will continue to stand up to polluters in the interest of environmental and public health.”  Generally Obama has supported the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts.  Some greenhouse emissions have declined under his watch, although, according to the piece Obama’s Environmental Report Card, most of the measurable declines are due to the slowdown in the economy and can not be attributed to any policy from Obama.

Water pollution:   “Democrats will continue working to ensure the integrity of the waters Americans rely on every day for drinking, swimming, and fishing, by supporting initiatives that restore our rivers, oceans, coasts, and watersheds.”  In fact Obama has been effective at implementing his clean water agenda, including reinvigorating the drinking water standards that were weakened under Bush, helping to restore better federal financing for water and wastewater treatment infrastructure, and protecting the Great Lakes. Unfortunately Obama has been a strong advocate of hydraulic fracturing, a highly polluting practice which is shockingly exempt from the Safe Drinking Water Act.

Protecting Public Lands: The Democrats promise to “continue to work with local communities to conserve our publicly owned lands and dramatically expand investments in conserving and restoring forests, grasslands, and wetlands across America for generations to come.”   The Democrats tout the restoration of  “landscapes like the Great Lakes, the Florida Everglades, and local wilderness areas.”  They also promise they will be  ” preserving sensitive public lands from exploration, like the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, Pacific West Coast, Gulf of Maine, and other irreplaceable national landscapes.”

Protecting environmental standards in global trade:  The Democrats strongly support the creation of green jobs along with supporting local communities with “developments such as passenger rail, bicycle and pedestrian paths, and other projects to support livable cities.”  There are promises to protect environmental standards when participating in any trade agreements.  Generally,  the similar promises made by Obama in the 2008 election have fallen short. His promise to include labor and environmental standards in any trade agreements, was unfortunately abandoned.

 Energy: The platform outlines an “all of the above”  approach to energy, including using “wind, solar, biofuels, geothermal, hydropower, nuclear, oil, clean coal, and natural gas.”
  • The nation’s first offshore wind farm was approved under Obama. US  wind and solar power capacity  increased 39 and 52 percent (PDF) from 2008 to 2009 and Obama’s decision to extend tax credits and create a new grant program for residential renewable energy  likely was a factor in this increase.
  • The current policy on biofuel needs to be reexamined for the reasons stated above.
  • Whether or not nuclear should be considered in light of the terrifying ramifications associated with waste storage, accidents etc… is another long (or short..depending on how you look at it) debate.
  • Obama has been promoting “clean coal”  since the 2008 election which I consider to be a huge mark against him. “Clean Coal”  is a lie. It does not exist, nor does any viable plan to create it yet.  Enough said.
  •  Natural gas is being heavily promoted. Unfortunately, the practice of fracking, although known to be highly polluting, is completely unregulated and citizens around the country are joining in an effort to ban the practice from their communities.   The platform makes some concessions to these environmental concerns.   “Harnessing our natural gas resources needs to be done in a safe and responsible manner, which is why the Obama administration has proposed a number of safeguards to protect against water contamination and air pollution. We will continue to advocate for the use of this clean fossil fuel, while ensuring that public and environmental health and workers’ safety are protected.”  The administration has done nothing so far to ensure the health and safety of the public in the arena of natural gas production. It remains to be seen if they will.
  • There is a general tone of support  for expanded oil-and-gas drilling,  including “expediting the approval process to build out critical oil and gas lines essential to transporting our energy for consumers.” This could be a troubling hint at a softening on Obama’s  position to reject the rapid approval of the Keystone XL pipeline.

Climate change is strongly addressed in this platform, although it is noteworthy that it is generally weaker than the platform of 2008.  Since the evidence in support of the dire threat of global warming has only grown stronger, one can only read this as an unfortunate continuation of Obama’s history of  deserting or toning down difficult positions when they are perceived as “politically risky”. An analysis on the blog “Get Energy Smart! NOW!”   states that “the silence from the administration and the Obama-Biden election team on climate issues has been deafening.” Joe Romm comments in his piece  for that “recently, climate change has been the Voldemort of the Obama Administration: The Threat-That-Must-Not-Be-Named  In January, the President omitted any discussion of climate change from his State of the Union address, since, what really does the gravest threat to Americans and indeed all homo ‘sapiens’ have to do with the state of the union? Then the White House edited climate change from Obama’s Earth Day 2012 proclamation.”

The 2008 platform included multiple pledges to free the nation  from the “tyranny” of oil,  while the 2012 platform echoes Obama’s frequent statements of support for expanded oil-and-gas drilling as part of a wider energy strategy.  Obama has had some success with climate change policy, especially with the raised fuel-economy standards for cars and light trucks. But his overall performance has been spotty.  This was recently addressed  in a brilliant piece for Rolling Stone written by Al Gore. He commends President Obama for his initial work on climate change such as “including climate-friendly initiatives in the economic stimulus package he presented to Congress” and the fact that “during his first six months, he clearly articulated the link between environmental security, economic security and national security”  However Gore concludes that  “in spite of these and other achievements, President Obama has thus far failed to use the bully pulpit to make the case for bold action on climate change. After successfully passing his green stimulus package, he did nothing to defend it when Congress decimated its funding. After the House passed cap and trade, he did little to make passage in the Senate a priority. Senate advocates — including one Republican — felt abandoned when the president made concessions to oil and coal companies without asking for anything in return. He has also called for a massive expansion of oil drilling in the United States, apparently in an effort to defuse criticism from those who argue speciously that ‘drill, baby, drill’ is the answer to our growing dependence on foreign oil.   The failure to pass legislation to limit global-warming pollution ensured that the much-anticipated Copenhagen summit on a global treaty in 2009 would also end in failure.”   He goes on to say that  “without presidential leadership that focuses intensely on making the public aware of the reality we face, nothing will change. The real power of any president, as Richard Neustadt wrote, is ‘the power to persuade.’ Yet President Obama has never presented to the American people the magnitude of the climate crisis. He has simply not made the case for action. He has not defended the science against the ongoing, withering and dishonest attacks. Nor has he provided a presidential venue for the scientific community — including our own National Academy — to bring the reality of the science before the public.”

I think this brings up an issue that is problematic for many disappointed Obama supporters.  It is generally understood that Obama has had to battle a very strong, well-funded and entrenched opposition when seeking to enact many of his promised policy changes.  I think that many supporters forgive some of his failures at passing meaningful legislation because there is an underlying belief  that change might not  be possible in the current landscape, and that he has “done his best”.  But  there is no excuse for not using the “bully pulpit” to inform and educate the American people and to fight for the policies that he purportedly supports.  When considering the possibly devastating effects of ignoring global warming, Obama’s consistent caving on the issue makes one wonder how much he really cares.

When Professor Gibbons compiled his list of the biggest environmental problems,  number one was apathy.   He explained: “A clear indicator of our foremost problem is that world leaders seldom acknowledge, let alone propose solutions to, environmental problems. For those leaders around the world chosen by a democratic election process, that apathy is condoned and mimicked by the people who elect them.”

It is hard to tell whether or not we can really trust Obama and the Democratic party, but at least their rhetoric about the environment is heads above Romney and the GOP.  In any case, we the people, cannot be apathetic.  Educate yourself about the issues at hand, hold your representatives accountable for their decisions, and where the system is not working, organize to create one that does.

opensourceway / Free Photos