President Obama is the first president who has made a true commitment to the environment since Jimmy Carter (and before that, the Roosevelts), but I'm afraid Obama will face the same roadblocks as Carter.
More people are "green" than when Carter was in office, but to me, the majority are not green. They still drive their gas-guzzlers all over the place, and then complain about prices at the pump. Some even laugh at greenies with the age-old trite "tree hugger" sarcasm. In my home state of Michigan, a statewide referendum for alternative energy lost in a landside because the utilities falsely told residents their rates would increase. Surveys show that a majority of Americans deny that global warming even exists.
Carter was ridiculed back in the late 1970s for urging motorists to boost their gas mileage by driving 55 mph on the highways, and for wearing a cardigan on TV and literally begging Americans to dial back their winter thermostats, but he was ahead of his time. In winning the 1980 election, Ronald Reagan cast himself as the positive and patriotic candidate as opposed to Carter, the prince of pessimism, in part because of Carter's prescient environmental concerns.
And so, Reagan gave us “Morning in America,” which to me was “Mourning in America.” Reagan showed his ignorance by, among things, cynically removing the solar panels that Carter had ordered installed at the White House. (This was a man who asserted, lest we forget, that trees actually cause pollution.) But there was an inner fight in the OPEC cartel, which pushed gas prices down into the Happy Days era for a while, and so Reagan became a sort of clueless hero.
Which brings us to Obama. While unlike Carter he may have been re-elected, he still faces dim second-term prospects on green concerns. Citizens are finally starting to wake up and to realize the threat of a budgetary fiscal cliff, but few are will acknowledge an environmental cliff. In fact, the fiscal cliff will stand in the way of addressing the environmental cliff.
My discussions with friends and associates don't get me far, but here goes: "I support the vast majority of scientists who say oil and coal cause manmade global warming. You don't. But we need not debate that. Whether of not you realize the climate is getting hotter, the main point is that we're running out of both fossil fuels, oil sooner than coal, and so regardless of whether they harm the environment, you won't be able to drive your gas-guzzler or heat your McMansion at some point in the future. Do you truly believe the supplies of oil and coal are unlimited? Be real."
Obama won narrow party-line approval in 2009 for an economic stimulus that included $90 billion for green investments. That was quite an achievement, but in today's instant gratification culture, the stimulus soon was derided. Plus, the oil and coal lobbyists fed the flames of dissatisfaction.
This is why Mitt Romney perceived an opening to score debate points when he mentioned the $90 billion and claimed that half of the investments, including the infamous Solyndra solar company, had failed in bankruptcy. Here are the facts, combined from The New York Times and from Time magazine contributor Michael Grunwald, author of the stimulus review, "The New New Deal."
* Support for green companies was $16 billion. The other $74 billion went for public projects such as high-speed rail, mass transit and energy-saving home insulation.
* Among 36 investments, 33 have been successful and three failed. That's far more than half and half.
* Yes, Solyndra failed, for various reasons beyond their control, but during the Obama administration's first term, thanks to the stimulus, renewable energy sources were doubled and energy conservation was promoted. Solyndra shows why these programs are labeled high-risk. The same is true for any technology. If no risks are taken, no discoveries are achieved. In fact, a ratio of failure actually is budgeted as a safety net. Consider that Edison nearly went bankrupt before he invented the light bulb. Consider massive experimentation and research at NASA.
In fact, considering the history of NASA, space exploration was needed, but what was the point in going to the moon? Imagine if President Kennedy instead had made alternative energy a priority. Or President Eisenhower, previous during the 1950s, instead of building the oil-draining and sprawl-inducing national highway system. Or President Johnson, instead of going to Vietnam. Or President Nixon, instead of staying there. Or Reagan or President Clinton, Instead of failing to set energy taxes at times when gas prices suddenly plummeted. Or from Reagan to President Bush II, instead of adopting huge tax cuts for the rich.
The list of failed chances to invest for the environment seems almost endless, but in an HP-rooted twist on an old axiom, we can't cry over spilt oil. We must move ahead.
To push Congress to renew the 2009 investments, Obama's only hope is to find someone -- if not himself, some other charismatic figure -- to capture the nation's inspiration in the same way that the moon mission did. That's such a tough call. Carter got nowhere with his "moral equivalent of war." So personally, I'm just crossing my fingers and hoping against hope.