Obama’s environmental capitulation.

From the day he took office, Barack Obama had a unified theory of how the United States could recover and prosper. At the center of his plan—which he voiced in an address to a joint session of Congress in February 2009—was the need to reduce the use of carbon-based fuels, whether through energy efficiency or through their replacement by renewable sources. This course of action, he said, was the only way to “truly transform our economy, to protect our security, and save our planet from the ravages of climate change.”

Compelling questions have certainly been raised about this claim. How many jobs would a green economy create? What is to be the role of nuclear energy? Would wind and solar be sufficient without relying on coal and oil?

Nevertheless, Obama’s unified theory remains the most convincing framework for ensuring America’s future prosperity—certainly when compared to Coolidge-era fantasies about spurring private growth through public austerity. And the events of the past year—from the BP oil spill to the Arab Spring—have dramatized the need for the United States to wean itself off oil. Moreover, while it’s difficult to attribute a specific hurricane or flood to global warming, scientists have gathered ample evidence that, as the planet warms, the overall incidence of severe weather will continue to grow.

These events could have provided Obama with a rallying cry. But, except as a rhetorical afterthought, the administration has abandoned its unified approach to transforming America’s use of energy. It has dropped its cap-and-trade proposal for reducing greenhouse-gas emissions. And it has acceded—often quietly—to Republican efforts to gut funding for renewable energy and more efficient transportation systems.

The president took another step away from his earlier commitment to a green America in his May 15 weekly address. Obama called for dramatically increasing domestic oil production, including deep-sea drilling in the Gulf and the South Atlantic, in order to drive down gasoline prices. Increased drilling might eventually contribute very marginally to oil independence—although even now the United States imports much of its oil from the Western Hemisphere, rather than from the unstable Middle East—but it would do practically nothing for the administration’s other objectives. An expansion of drilling would increase, not diminish, America’s carbon emissions. It would impede the shift to a green economy. Most curiously, it would likely have little to no effect on gas prices. Certainly, it would not alter them in the near future—production from new leases would be years away. And, even in the long run, it would probably have little impact on the global oil market—just as recent rises in U.S. production have failed to prevent price increases. According to a study by the U.S. Energy Information Administration, expanding offshore drilling would not reduce gas prices by 2020 and would lower prices just three cents per gallon by 2030. Obama’s speech was a repudiation rather than a reaffirmation of earlier commitments. It was a pander to public fears and ignorance.

To be sure, Obama faces intransigent opposition from a Republican Party driven by fierce partisanship and devoted to the interests of Big Oil and Big Coal. If House Republicans had their way, funding for Energy Department projects would be cut 70 percent by 2014, and the Environmental Protection Agency would be prevented from policing carbon emissions. In his defense, Obama can say that by parroting the Republican mantra of “drill, baby, drill,” he is doing the expedient, but wise, thing: enhancing his own chances of reelection, in order to prevent the victory of a GOP that would have no commitment to clean energy.

But short-term politics is not, in the end, a persuasive excuse. Energy reforms are never going to be politically possible unless Democrats make the case for substantial change. To his credit, Obama has said that “we can’t just drill our way out of the problem”; but he needs to stop suggesting that increased drilling should be part of the solution, and instead argue for a more environmentally sound approach. The longer he waits to do this, the worse things will get. The consequences of carbon emissions, scientists from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration have warned, “are largely irreversible for a thousand years after emissions stop.” If greenhouse gases are allowed to rise at their current rate, they could lead to a medley of severe flooding and Dust Bowl aridity; acute food and water shortages; and abandonment of significant portions of the globe.

The brilliance of Obama’s unified theory was that it promised prosperity, security, and a step away from the brink of global catastrophe. His current strategy may augur success at the polls, but it could lead to disaster in the decades ahead. This is an issue where Obama needs to lead rather than split the difference. He needs to reaffirm his message to Congress from February 2009—before it’s too late.

This article originally ran in the June 9, 2011, issue of the magazine.

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