Will Obama Become the First Environmental President of the 21st Century?

Multiple crises offer opportunity for solutions with a higher purpose

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It seems insensitive to talk about silver linings in the middle of the life-killing oil spill in the Gulf, but there are some we should recognize and act upon now.

There’s hope that the spill is proving the folly extracting every last drop of a finite resource by invading ever more difficult and sensitive places. The past safety record of offshore drilling, cited by President Obama when he announced he was opening up more ocean to oil companies, means nothing when those companies are moving into uncharted waters, literally speaking.

As BP has tried each new trick to stop the hemorrhage on the ocean floor, it has made clear these techniques have never been attempted at that depth. It is a public admission that one of the world’s largest oil companies, using the industry’s most advanced extraction technologies, doesn’t have the experience or tools to drill safely in these new places.

As Bill McKibben points out, the oil spill is not so much President Obama’s Katrina as his 9-11, a tragedy with the potential to rally us around something we must do – in this case, the rapid transition to all those domestic energy resources that don’t have to be blasted, drilled, dug up and burned because they are there for the harnessing – sun, wind, tides, geothermal and biomass.

A second and less-obvious silver lining was mentioned briefly by Ken Salazar when he addressed students in Denver on May 29. As the Associated Press reported it:

Interior Secretary Ken Salazar says he is hopeful the massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico will be cleaned up and that the coast will be restored to a condition better than it was before the disaster.

Higher Purpose

The topic came up again on June 9 during one of Admiral Thad Allen’s press briefings on the Gulf disaster. A reporter asked Allen whether leaving the coast in better condition than before is “actually doable”. Allen replied:

If you’re going to go in and do a massive mitigation or restoration environmentally down there, it might be worthwhile to step back and say, "What would a newly restored Gulf look like in its most pristine form? And can we somehow add to that or start with maybe a higher purpose and see if we can’t add to this moving forward?" I think it’s a legitimate goal to establish.

Why is this silver lining so important? It introduces the “higher purpose” of moving beyond environmental protection to environmental restoration – the process of repairing the damage we have inflicted on critical ecosystems and recapturing the many important services they provide.

On Meet the Press recently, energy and climate czar Carol Browner said the Gulf spill is “probably the biggest environmental disaster the country has ever faced.” In a speech this week, EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson called the spill “the largest environmental disaster in American history.”

Both were eager to show how seriously the Administration is taking this disaster – and both were wrong. America is in the middle of several environmental disasters whose impacts affect not only the Gulf Coast, but all our coasts and everything in between.

One of the crises, of course, is global climate change – the insidious self-afflicted tragedy whose adverse impacts already are underway, some to be felt for the next 1,000 years according to government researchers.

No Substitute for Water

Another is freshwater supplies. After surveying water officials around the country in 2003, the General Accounting Office reported that 36 states were expecting shortages of fresh water by 2013, even without drought.

Some experts say those shortages are already underway with adverse consequences for energy production, agriculture and peace between neighbors. As the Economist recently noted in a special section on water, we can find substitutes for oil but there is no substitute for water.

The casualty list goes on: ocean acidification, nitrogen loading, the destruction of wetlands, forests falling to fires and bugs, the decline in soil fertility due to mono-agriculture, the loss of biodiversity, all with very real consequences for our economy, safety and health.

Others in the world seem to get this. In March, for example, the environmental ministers of the European Union warned that we are “going beyond the limits of nature” and pledged to redouble efforts to halt biodiversity loss worldwide.

The ministers’ pledge followed a study that concluded a failure to stop the extinction of plant and animal species would cost the global economy several trillion dollars each year by mid-century as society is forced to pay for services environmental systems used to provide for free, from water purification to pollination.

If Hurricane Katrina and the Gulf spill demonstrate we’re pretty poor at disaster response, then these other ongoing crises show we suck at disaster prevention. We not only fail to invest in the infrastructure, designs and practices that might save us from natural disasters; we also are destroying the natural systems that provide that protection for free.

President Obama’s goal for a “clean energy economy” should have more traction in the wake of the Gulf spill, but our mission needs to be broader. We need a resilient and restorative economy in which we recapture a broad array of priceless ecosystem services by repairing the damage we have done to our natural systems and resources.

The first priority in the Gulf is to stop the hemorrhage and clean up the mess. But the next priority should be to make the Gulf Coast a model of environmental restoration – part of an historic ongoing effort to restore the many natural systems being degraded in less telegenic ways, with much wider and longer-lasting consequences for us all.

President Obama has the opportunity – if not the obligation – to be our first environmental president of the 21st century.