Score one for the environment

On Nov. 4, the tension was unbearable. Fortunately for our air, water and wildlife, Barack Obama triumphed.

Published December 31, 2008 12:40PM (EST)

Before hailing the close of the Bush administration's eight-year attack on the environment and scientific integrity, and celebrating Barack Obama's takeover, let us pause to imagine an alternative future with John McCain and Sarah Palin in the White House.

Even a grizzly bear shudders to think of it.

During the 2008 presidential campaign, McCain and Palin displayed a callous disregard for scientific research, while attempting to make light of wasteful government spending. On the stump, McCain ridiculed a major grizzly bear study, charging that the taxpayers had spent millions to study DNA of bears in Montana and joking, "I don't know if that was a criminal issue or a paternal issue." Never mind that McCain himself voted to fund the totally legit study, which assessed the federally protected species' distribution in a 12,000-square-mile area in and around Glacier National Park.

In the Senate, McCain had shown leadership on climate change, attempting to pass legislation to curb greenhouse gas emissions. So where was that McCain on the campaign trail? No doubt to please the Republican base, he abandoned his support for government regulation as a tool for fighting global warming. And while he paid lip service to clean energy, his voting record showed him to be one of the strongest opponents of renewable energy funding in the Senate.

Meanwhile, Palin horrified voters when it was revealed that as Alaska's governor she'd levied a $150 price tag on wolves' paws, encouraging bounty hunters to gun them down from airplanes.

On the campaign trail, she frequently wore a kitschy polar bear pin on her suit coat, despite her vehement opposition to federal protections for the bears. And she mocked U.S. spending on fruit fly research that took place in -- gasp! -- Paris, France. Palin neglected to mention the fact that the fruit fly being studied had infested thousands of California olive groves and posed the single largest threat to U.S. olive groves and the domestic olive oil industry.

If McCain-Palin had won the election, we'd be looking forward to another four years of scientific research as a sorry punch line. But, yes Virginia, it was not to be.

With the election of Obama, Americans chose a president who not only respects science, but actually respects the views of the climatologists on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, who are urging the U.S. and the world to combat global warming. In December, Obama nominated Steven Chu, a Nobel-prizing winning physicist and champion of alternative energy, to run the department of energy. "His appointment should send a signal to all that my administration will value science," Obama said, when he was announcing the nomination: "We will make decisions based on facts, and we understand that the facts demand bold action."

Obama also appointed Carol Browner, who headed the Environmental Protection Agency under President Clinton, to the new position of energy czar. Browner, who is an ally of Al Gore, will head up a White House council on energy and climate. Lisa Jackson, a commissioner in New Jersey's environmental department, who will take over the embattled Environmental Protection Agency, has been a vocal critic of the current agency. "When it comes to the auto industry," she has said, "the E.P.A. apparently is the Emissions Permissions Agency."

Those attitudes are a breath of fresh air after the Bush administration. For eight long years, it has dragged its feet on global warming, while China -- now the world's number one greenhouse gas emitter -- and India have used the U.S.'s inaction as an excuse to do nothing. In December at international climate talks in Poland, Nobel Peace Prize laureate Al Gore underscored the monumental problem of global warming, charging that current international goals to reduce emissions aren't ambitious enough to prevent catastrophe, echoing the concerns of NASA climate scientist James Hansen and writer Bill McKibben.

With the widening global economic crisis, the big climate question going into 2009 is whether stimulus packages, promoting green jobs and clean energy, can offset fears that mandatory emission cuts will be a drag on already floundering economies. But the costs of not making a speedy transition to domestic alternative energy should not be underestimated. "The future of our economy and national security is inextricably linked to one challenge -- energy," Obama said in a recent press conference, announcing his environment and energy nominations.

The volatility of the price of oil in 2008 underscored the urgency of that challenge. In June, the average price for a gallon of gas in the U.S. topped $4 for the first time, making gas-pump sticker shock a hot campaign issue. McCain's proposal to give the nation a "gas tax holiday," a proposition denounced by economists, went nowhere fast.

High gas prices, though, certainly fueled Americans' driving habits, with motorists driving 12.2 billion miles fewer in June 2008 than in June 2007. More American commuters from Cleveland to San Francisco turned to public transit, while vacationers opted to stay closer to home for those summer months, a practice dubbed the "staycation."

In September, while Palin and her fans shouted "Drill, baby, drill," sticker shock at the pump led the Democratic-controlled Congress to allow a 27-year-old moratorium on offshore drilling to expire. The high gas prices also saw Americans giving up on the bigger-is-better mantra that's ruled the roads for decades, leaving the hugest trucks and SUVs marooned in car dealers' lots like a transportation museum exhibit. With the rapid decline of the economy and the fate of the American auto industry looking dire, that iconic brand of fuck-you consumption, the Hummer, stared extinction in the face.

As for the living, breathing endangered species, they fared little better than the Humvee. The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Agency continued its pattern of failing to offer protections to any new species, unless sued or petitioned by outside groups. While the Bush administration dithered about protecting the polar bear, the Minerals and Management Agency handed out oil and gas leases in prime polar bear habitat.

The polar bear, whose Arctic habitat is melting thanks to global warming, did finally get "threatened" status, despite objections by polar bear hunters. Even so, the Department of the Interior continued to allow oil and gas drilling in polar bear habitat -- an attempt to prevent the Endangered Species Act from being used to fight climate change.

Over at the EPA, disregard for science in assessing toxic chemicals became so bleak this year that one high-ranking staff scientist told Salon: "It feels like Stalin-era Russia, like the administration set themselves up to decide what's allowable science and what isn't. Until the recent economic crash, this has been such an anti-regulatory administration. One of the ways to undermine regulations is to undermine the science behind them. It's absolutely shocking what's going on."

In his final bow to industry, Bush, employing "midnight regulations," threw out 35-year-old rules in the Endangered Species Act, which required independent scientific review of proposed federal projects which could imperial endangered plants and animals. His administration also loosened restrictions on mountaintop removal for coal mining and tried to weaken air quality standards in and around national parks.

While endangered species couldn't get a break this year, farm animals won new sympathy from the public. Undercover video shot by an operative for the Humane Society at a California slaughterhouse revealed horrific acts of animal cruelty, which led to the largest beef recall in United States history, impacting 143 millions pounds of beef products. The plant was shut down. In November, California voters overwhelming approved a ballot measure offering new protections for farm animals, prohibiting confinement of chickens and cows and such in a manner that does not allow them to turn around freely, lie down, stand up and fully extend their limbs.

As 2008 ends, the earth has U.S. voters to thank for electing Obama-Biden and not McCain-Palin. But environmentalists are not slacking off. Already they have Obama in their sights, expressing their disappointment in his selection of Colorado Senator Ken Salazar as secretary of the interior. Salazar, some enviros state, has fought against both federal action on global warming and higher fuel efficiency standards, while arguing for increased oil drilling and oil subsidies. Let the new year begin.


By Katharine Mieszkowski

Katharine Mieszkowski is a senior writer for Salon.

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