Politics: It’s Not Just Republicans Who Anger Greens. Obama Can Do It Too

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Pablo Martinez Monsivais / AP Photo

I’ve written more than a few posts recently highlighting Republican opposition to action on climate change and the party’s efforts to dismantle environmental regulations. But while the GOP has been out front targeting the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the Obama Administration hasn’t escaped blame from environmentalists for some of its policies. The White House is still fielding criticism for botching the politics of last year’s carbon cap-and-trade bill, and more recently for virtually surrendering on climate change. (See The New Yorker‘s Hendrik Hertzberg’s recent piece on Obama’s State of the Union speech, which conspicuously lacked any mention of climate change or global warming.)

Climate policy is largely beyond the White House’s control now—other than defending the EPA’s regulatory powers—but that’s not the only area where Obama has irked greens. To wit:

  • On February 8, the Obama Administration announced that it would not list the Pacific walrus under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). Even though the Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) determined that the species is in some danger—due in part to shrinking sea ice from climate change eroding its habitat—the agency put the walrus into the”warranted but precluded” category, a kind of waiting list allowed under the ESA if  FWS believes other species deserve more protection. That wait could be indefinite, however, and the Center for Biological Diversity called it a “black hole.” The move continues the White House’s general reluctance to use the ESA as a means to address climate change—something groups like the Center have been pushing for in lawsuits for years.
  • On February 10, the Forest Service announced a new plan to change the management of the national forest system. The government said that the new framework would help the Forest Service respond to the shifting threat of climate change and better manage natural resources. But while mining and timber groups reacted with caution to the plan, many environmental groups were immediately unhappy. The Defenders of Wildlife argued that the proposed framework would roll back safeguards from the Reagan Administration requiring the Forest Service to maintain health and sustainable fish and wildlife populations.
  • Organic food advocates have been livid over the Agriculture Department’s (USDA) recent decisions to approve genetically modified seeds for several crops. Two weeks ago, the USDA approved GM alfalfa, despite concerns that biotech seeds might contaminate nearby organic crops. And today, the USDA approved genetically engineered corn for use in ethanol production. Though the corn isn’t approved for human consumption, environmental groups worry that the seeds could easily spread beyond fields devoted to ethanol. As Grist’s Tom Philpott said of the alfalfa decision: “The announcement marks a complete USDA cave-in to the biotech industry’s demands, and yet more evidence that Obama wants to be seen as a friend to powerful business interests — at the expense of smaller, less powerful interests like organic alfalfa and dairy growers, and, in this case, of the public interest.”

I could go on, but this shouldn’t be surprising. It’s clear by now that Obama is—by nature and by practice—a pragmatist, and in the current political atmosphere that means environmental interests may not rank high on his agenda, especially with angry Republicans occupying the House. It’s not as if the White House has completely abandoned green principles—the EPA in particular has remained aggressive, continuing efforts towards greenhouse gas regulations and closing loopholes in the Clean Air and Clean Water Act. Obama is the first President to begin to take clean energy seriously—as the National Journal reported today, while the White House’s budget seeks to make deep cuts in fossil fuel subsidies while allocating billions to clean tech research. Obama assembled the greenest cabinet Washington had ever seen when he started office—and he’s still probably the greenest President in the country’s history.

So don’t expect an environmental insurrection against President Obama—not when Republicans are firmly in the climate change denial camp. Deep down greens know they can’t do much better.