Enormous Environmental Challenges Face Obama

  • Published on January 20th, 2009

President Obama speaking at his InaugurationFew Presidents have mentioned the environment in their inaugural speeches, but Mr Obama is one of them. There were some excellent pointers in his businesslike presentation today. Some that particularly caught my ear:

“Roll back the specter of a warming planet”

“…restoring Science to its rightful place”.

I also noted the part about “harnessing the sun, the wind and the soil”. The BBC’s Washington correspondent, Richard Lister noted that he was “setting out his transformative agenda: creating a new energy infrastructure. The image of ‘harnessing’ the soil is a notable one…”


Yes indeed, and it’s perhaps a reference to biofuels – which are all very well, but not if they take food-growing agricultural land that will be sorely needed in the uncertain future. And not if the conversion processing is driven by coal-fired power stations and thus produces more carbon than it saves.

Lister also noted that “He signals a very different worldview from that of his predecessor, stating that America cannot keep consuming the world’s resources ‘without regard to effect’.” One could not agree more.

James Hansen has pointed out how little time the United States has to establish leadership against global climate change and move towards a low-carbon global economy.

My big worry here is that Obama will be diverted from his course by Congress, by big business, and/or by a simple unwillingness to give up the overconsumptive habits of decades – and that instead we will have to face the global threat of irreversible climate change and the storms, flooding and inundation, drought, and worldwide human catastrophe that will surely follow if we do not start now to turn the tide.

Needless to say, I wish Mr Obama every success. People across the world watched the Inauguration with excitement and above all with hope; with thanks that at last the United States seems to have come to its senses. Will we all – especially in the West – be prepared to make the necessary and inevitable sacrifices to save our planet? If not, our descendants have horrible lives in front of them. The United States can and must lead the way, and Obama has the ideas.

Let no-one stand in the way.

About the Author

Richard Elen has been involved in alternative technology and the environment since the mid-1970s. He was a member of the group that produced Undercurrents, one of the first "AT" magazines (in fact Peter Harper coined the phrase therein). He was also a regular member of the team that produced the Climate Action Network's Eco magazine from the UN Climate Talks in the run-up to Kyoto (it is still produced today). Long a supporter of renewable energy, he is also particularly interested in the potential of virtual worlds for education, conferencing and networking with minimal CO2 emissions. He believes that the future lies in massive investment in public transport and renewables and suspects that bringing energy and communications back into public ownership is one of the few ways in which this might be achieved in the time we have left.