President-elect Barack ObamaOn November 4, from the White House to state houses and the unsung offices of Soil & Water Conservation and Public Utility Districts, American voters elected what is likely an unprecedented number of pro-environment candidates. By Thursday of last week, the Office of the President-elect had already posted the "Obama-Biden comprehensive New Energy America" plan. Among its goals are putting a million hybrid 150 mpg plug-in cars on the road by 2015, creating five million new "clean energy jobs" in the next ten years, and reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 80 percent by 2050. The new administration also promises to double federal funding for scientific research, increase support for science education, technological research and development, and to "restore scientific integrity to the White House." What would be a tall order in the best of times has been made even more challenging by the past eight weeks' events. Not only will the Obama administration take office amid the greatest economic distress perhaps since the Great Depression, but the Bush administration has also been busy issuing end-of-term regulations that will considerably increase environmental protection challenges. Among these new rules are:
  • A proposal that would make it impossible to use the Endangered Species Act to curtail greenhouse gas emissions and global warming even when they harm a listed species.
  • A Surface Mining Rule that could effectively eliminate a 100-foot buffer zone to protect streams from mining waste generated in mountaintop removal coal mining operations in Appalachia.
  • An EPA proposal not to regulate perchlorate in drinking water - a contaminant toxic to the thyroid now found in hundreds of water sources in over thirty states.
  • Approval of the pesticide methyl iodide to replace ozone-depleting methyl bromide, long favored by the U.S. strawberry industry. Over fifty scientists - including Nobel laureates - have written to the EPA protesting use of this powerful neurotoxin and potential carcinogen.
Environmental advocates have great expectations for what an Obama administration can achieve. But it won't be easy. Environmental protection at a time of badly strained budgets and economic turmoil will require ingenuity and persistence - and I think, accounting for the full lifecycle costs of everything we use, including all the costs of global warming, pollution, biodiversity loss, and resource depletion. What do you think? Leave us a comment. ———- Elizabeth Grossman is the author of High Tech Trash: Digital Devices, Hidden Toxics, and Human Health.