What’s Wrong With Obama’s Green Team?

October 14, 2009

(reposted from GreenBiz.com)

by Marc Gunther

It’s hard not to be impressed by the people working for the Obama administration on the environment. For the most part, they’re smart, well-intentioned, dedicated. Let’s hope they can deliver meaningful results soon on the issue that matters most: climate change.

Today, I’m at the Society of Environmental Journalists convention in Madison, Wisconsin. It has attracted a parade of administration officials: Tom Vilsack, the agriculture secretary, marine biologist Jane Lubchenko, who leads the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration; Nancy Sutley, head of the White House Council on Environmental Quality; Gina McCarthy, an EPA administrator in charge of air quality, and others. Al Gore keynoted, and we heard from economists, scientists and a CEO or two during a very full day.

The Obama people came to sell cap-and-trade, hard. One version of a carbon regulation bill has passed the House, another’s pending in the Senate and the UN meetings in Copenhagen where a global agreement is supposed to be negotiated to replace the Kyoto treaty is just two months away.

Chances are, though, that, the U.S. won’t have legislation by then, which will make it difficult to get a global accord.

That’s because, for all the brainpower and commitment of Obama’s green team, the president has made climate change, at best, his No. 4 priority, behind the economy, health care and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. The Republicans haven’t helped on the climate issue, either.

To be sure, Obama & Co. have spent a fortune subsidizing clean energy through the economic stimulus bill. But that won’t be as much help as a cap-and-trade bill with strong targets.

Here are a few highlights from today’s event:

Climate legislation will be good for farmers, even though it could raise the cost of fertilizer and fuel, Vilsack argued.

“It’s one of the best things that can happen to rural America,” he said.

That’s because the carbon offsets in the House and Senate climate bills will generate revenues for farmers. Offsets are a way that regulated industries, like the utilities that own coal plants, can comply with the “caps” on global warming pollutants by paying unregulated entities — in this case, farmers — to reduce their emissions. (Just trying to explain this makes me dizzy.) So, while the costs of fuel and fertilizer will grow because they are made from fossil fuels, the potential value of offsets to farmers could reach as much as $15 billion a year, Vilsack said. To put that in context, he said, net income to all farmers is about $55 billion a year.

In theory, farmers could be paid for a variety of environmentally friendly practices that would reduce their carbon emissions. Among them: no-till agriculture, better conservation practices, applying fertilizer in different ways, capturing methane from pigs, cows or chickens or planting trees on underutilized land.

Vilsack said a “yogurt company in New Hampshire” — presumably Stonyfield Farm — could be paid for developing new feed for cows that reduces their emissions, a polite way of saying their burps and farts would be composed of less methane.

Speaking of cows, EPA doesn’t want to regulate them, says Gina McCarthy, the assistant administrator for EPA’s Office of Air and Radiation.

When asked if EPA will try to regulate carbon emissions from every Dunkin’ Donuts and dairy farm, McCarthy joked: “I am personally going to do that, yes, And I want to make that announcement here in Wisconsin.”

McCarthy, the former head of Connecticut’s department of environmental protection, knows her stuff and talks like a real person, not a like a politician or federal bureaucrat. She said EPA has no desire to regulate global warming pollutants on its own, even though it has been granted the right to do so by the Supreme Court. Of course, that wouldn’t prevent further court challenges. EPA, she said, would prefer to enforce a cap-and-trade system because it’s more flexible, market friendly and likely to drive innovation.

She admitted, however, that managing offsets will be tough, particularly since the legislation is sure to permit international as well as domestic offsets, and allow offsets for both reforestation (planting trees) and avoided deforestation (not cutting down trees).

“Offsets are going to be one of the trickiest pieces of any cap-and-trade program,” McCarthy said. “If they’re not sound and they’re not verified and they’re not credible and they’re not permanent, then you don’t have a cap.”

So how, she was asked, would EPA monitor offsets in such places as Indonesia and Brazil? “It’s my new retirement package,” she quipped. The real answer, she added, is that the government will have to rely on third-party auditors.

Gore bored.

Funny thing about Al Gore. I’ve probably heard him speak a half dozen times, and once spent a couple of hours at his home in Nashville while reporting a story (Al Gore’s Next Act: Planet-Saving VC) for Fortune. I always look forward to hearing him because I so admire his commitment to the climate issue. He’s really smart, too, as well as knowledgeable. And, I sense, he’s fundamentally a good guy.

Invariably, I’m disappointed because he simply cannot talk without pontificating. Today was no exception. Aargh! (If you doubt me, listen here. [MP3 link])

Gore did sound an optimistic note about the potential for a Washington breakthrough over climate, even hinting at one point that the Republicans could become supporters of a bill:

The political system of the U.S. and the world share one thing in common with the climate system — both are nonlinear. The potential for change can build up without noticeable effect until that potential reaches a critical mass capable of breaking through whatever barrier has been holding us back.

We’re very close to a political tipping point.

Was that one Nobel laureate talking to another? I hope so. It’s time for President Obama to move climate to the top of his to-do list, so his green team can have a real impact.

How to Lose a World in 10 Minutes

October 13, 2009

It’s almost impossible to squander a gift from the PR heavens such as the Nobel Peace Prize that was awarded to President Obama this month, but the United States has, sadly and predictably, done it.

Here we were, with our country’s highest elected official Binarybeing recognized as an international symbol for peace and hope. Here we were, with an international image and reputation as battered and tattered as it has ever been. And here we were, with the same very loud people who shortly before raucously cheered when Chicago lost its bid for the 2016 Summer Olympic Games because it represented damage to Obama’s image, squawking loudly that Obama did not deserve and even should refuse the award because he “hasn’t accomplished anything.” Keep in mind that these are much the same people who tried to make American flag lapel pins and “USA! USA!” and pledges of unquestioning patriotic virtue mandatory tests of our “American-ness” during the previous administration.

Well, Obama did accomplish something. The prize represents the world effectively saying, “We’ve been feeling rather uneasy about the United States for quite some time, but now we feel a lot better about you. Welcome back to the global community.”

Isn’t that something to celebrate? Isn’t that a reason to put our deep differences as Americans aside for just one day and simply, joyously celebrate being respected world citizens again?

The sad answer is that it isn’t.

America can no longer stay on message.

And America can no longer stay on message because every single aspect of our governance has been politicized to such an extent that it has lost any utilitarian meaning almost entirely.

Starting with the Vietnam War and Watergate, and intensifying through the Carter and Reagan and Clinton and both Bush administrations, our country has become an increasingly binary place. There seem to be only two sides to every issue, with no gray area in between, no nuance. As a result, our game is rigged: There can’t be a positive without a negative. It’s logically impossible.

Talk radio and cable news screamfests have turned our political process into bloodsport, little more than a game where there is never anything but winners and losers. There is no in between. There is no higher calling. The “issues” are merely footballs, thrown around and tossed in the garbage when they are worn out. We all suffer as citizens because of this. There is no longer an “us”. There is just “us versus them”.

Those outlets – Rush Limbaugh, FOX News, MSNBC, Huffington Post – are extremely good at staying on message. But the messages are hollow, mean-spirited, and reactionary – on both sides of the aisle. Unfortunately, the only thing that brings America together now is mutual enmity, choosing sides. There is no collective, universal truth, no common rallying point, no common message, for us all to proclaim as a people. We can’t even agree on what “freedom” and “liberty” mean anymore.

And so it is that the United States cannot simply, modestly accept the honor bestowed upon its president, because there are no timeouts in the pointless and endless grudge-a-thon that both fuels and sickens our society and our entire way of life.

We can’t stay on message because we don’t have one. We can’t enjoy a gigantic PR benefit because there is no longer an American “we”. America has become Coke and Pepsi, the Yankees and the Red Sox, the North and the South, all at the same time. And when did any of those yins ever agree with their respective yangs?

Like Obama, don’t like Obama. Fine. But weep just a little for what our country has become. And try to make it better. And maybe one day we can put all of the bile aside and concentrate on what we have in common.

I’m not holding my breath, but I can hope.

Posted by Joe Paone

The American Presidency, v2.0

January 22, 2009

There are certainly a great deal of noticeable differences in Barack Obama’s style of campaigning and governing.  His 2008 presidential campaign raised more money online than any other campaign has ever managed to raise and the brilliant minds of David Plouffe and the rest of his team put together the best viral marketing campaign the country has ever seen.  How will that translate into his first term in office?  What changes will he make, what committments will he stand by that will truly make him our first digital president?

The first more obvious one is the return of the fireside chat, ala FDR style.  The difference is this time, we won’t be gathered around the radio by the fire listening to our commander in chief talk us through a tough economic time.  We will gather around our computers, browsers logged into YouTube, watching a video of our leader, broadcast right into our homes.  Additionally, Obama’s use of social media technologies such as Twitter, Facebook, and discussion forums in every state helped organize supporters and unite those from both parties.  Communication with our government has never been more accessible, and, if this continues, it will only grow. 

But how else will the Obama team’s use of technology affect our country?  Perhaps it will be in his committment to increased funding of science and new clean technological research to end our dependence on foreign oil and begin again to lead in medical and scientific discovery.  Or maybe it will come in his promise to my generation – to pay closer attention to our needs, to use sustainability as not just an ideal but a practice, so that our children and grandchildren will have a cleaner, safer world to live in. 

We are living in digital world, and to finally have a leader who not only uses it, but embraces it is a key factor in our future success and growth.  I know it is cliche and perhaps even a little trite, but I do have hope that we have a chance to restore the dignity and honor that the American presidency once held.

Posted by: Ashley / ashleyatcaster on Twitter

In anticipation of Obama’s inaugural address…

January 19, 2009

Like many Americans, I am waiting (not at all) patiently for the inauguration of Obama tomorrow.  I have been minorly consumed, reading article after article, even attempting to track event attendees on Twitter in preparation for tomorrow’s historical Tweets.

For the record, this is extremely unlike me. I am a non-politically charged Independent. I rarely obsess about anything. I am, however, completely disenchanted with the U.S. that has emerged from under Bush’s administration and am now counting the hours and minutes until noon tomorrow in anticipation of the inaugaral speech.

CNN posted “Monumental Expectations for Obama’s Inauguration Address”  noting, “President-elect Barack Obama’s inaugural address is one of the most anticipated speeches in decades, with many expecting his words to be chiseled into marble some day.” Words to be chiseled into marble…  weighted words (co-)written by a 27-year old. I am thrilled to welcome youth in the presidency and his staff into the White House.

Jon Favreau, Obama’s chief speechwriter, wears “dungarees” to work; my grandmother would roll in her grave as jeans had no place in her wardrobe. He admitted to The Washington Post that he procrastinates and, further, drinks Red Bull to give him proverbial wings when on deadline. A gifted 27-year old who texts his best friend, “Dude. We won. Oh my God!” after Obama won the election. 

He wears jeans. He is silly. He uses the word “dude” and, I’m sure, he probably texted OMG instead of spelling out the three-word phrase. I love it. I can relate. He is real. He is also intelligent, motivated, successful, and his words are about to be forever a part of American and world history.

I’m hoping that tomorrow and the next four years bring many things that are selfless and world-serving, that the country returns to calmer waters,  wash away the word “recession”, and becomes a proud nation again.  But I also hope the Obama administration, with all the youth, hope and positive support it brings, demands new standards and sets greater expectations.  That they are successful in redefining America’s voice to strong, resolved, and tolerant – anything other than a Texan drawl, please! I hope 2009 is history in the making. Our “generation” spoke and hopefully Obama (and Favreau) is listening.

T minus  16 hours to go.

Posted by: katie

Political Ads in Video Games Impinge on the Right to be Oblivious

October 16, 2008

For some, gaming is a priority beyond all others in REAL life. Take my friend “Juan Dough” for example. He is a property manager for several apartment buildings that his father owns, providing basic maintenance and ensuring tenants pay their rent. With a minimal amount of time dedicated to actual “work”, Juan has considerable time to pursue other interests which basically include, eating, sleeping, Wii, Xbox 360, PS3 and PSP.

Juan makes no effort to educate himself politically but votes Republican no matter the candidate because his dad told him to. Normally subdued and focused on his “craft”, Juan was all fired up over the fact that Obama’s campaign bought advertising space in his newest game “Burnout:Paradise.” After going into a tirade about how his rights as a consumer were violated, I asked Juan, “Is this going to change your vote?”

To my surprise, Juan was so offended that presidential politics invaded his bastion of escape that he decided this election was not worthy of his vote, period. Call it a win for Obama this time but the lesson I learned was that hardcore gamers tend to be cynical, lazy (when it comes to non-gaming activities), politically unmotivated, impulsive, social (within their sphere) but most importantly, unpredictable.

As long as there’s money to be made, game producers will continue to sell in-game ads. With the right products or services presented the right way, I think it can work. However, most people use video games to seek out adventure and challenges without the associated risk and while I applaud Obama’s efforts to drive people to the booths in November, I’m not sure the Gamer vote is a vote worth pursuing. At least, not while they’re running from the cops with a bullet-ridden stripper in tow.