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In the Fixer-Upper with Barack Obama

June 15th, 2011 · 2 Comments

This guest post is from Bill McKibben who is the co-founder of the grassroots climate group, and Schumann Distinguished Scholar at Middlebury College.

Nothing tests a relationship like home renovation (well, maybe twittering crotch shots, but I mean for ordinary folks). Fixing the kitchen, putting in a new bathroom: “It can bring up core issues in communication and highlight power struggles and inherent weaknesses in the marriage,” Rick Heil, a marital therapist, told the Chicago Tribune. Indeed, Google reveals a Palo Alto counselor whose entire practice involves “providing individuals and couples the tools and skills they need to make home renovations a positive and rewarding experience for everyone involved.”

Her expertise might be needed this week, because it’s beginning to look like the White House has dropped the ball,  gotten a little lazy, “not done what it said it would do when it said it would do it, goddamnit” (see what I mean?) The relationship between environmentalists and President Obama has always been a trifle fraught.

We were coming off eight years of an abusive relationship, and he made some grand, even grandiose, promises. (The day he won the nomination, for instance he said it “was the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal.” That’s the kind of stuff that makes us tingle.)

And at first he seemed to be delivering: he crammed some green stuff in the economic stimulus act, put offshore drilling permits on hold, and restored critical protections under the Endangered Species Act that had been removed in the waning days of the Bush administration. We swooned. “It is difficult to overstate the tremendous progress President Obama has made in just 100 days,” said then-Sierra Club Executive Director Carl Pope. “He has moved swifter and smarter than any president in recent memory.”

Alas, that was the high point. Within a year he was opening vast new stretches of offshore America for drilling, sitting on the sidelines during the Senate climate debate. He started cozying up to our foes (he went hat-in-hand to the US Chamber of Commerce, the country’s biggest anti-environmental lobby). Earlier this year he opened a huge swath of federal land in Wyoming to new coal mining—so much coal that he might as well have opened 300 new coal-fired power plants. He even sold out the gray wolf during the last budget negotiations, agreeing to a Congressional rider removing it from federal protection. By last week former interior secretary Bruce Babbitt was accusing the White House of “appeasement” in the face of Republican provocation. The New York Times agreed:  “in recent months the White House has been far too quiet on the problem of climate change, and its once-promising efforts to regulate industrial pollution, toxic coal ash and mountaintop mining are flagging.”

The perfect symbol of this deterioration? Look no further than the roof of the White House.

A year ago, some of us decided it would be a great symbol of commitment—kind of a renewal of vows—if Mr. Obama would put solar panels up on top, just the way Jimmy Carter had done way back in 1978. After all, this was something he could do all on his own, without even having to ask the Congress. And who doesn’t like solar panels?

But we had to push and plead—specifically, we had to find one of the old Carter-era panels, mount it behind a bio-diesel van, and bring it all the way from Unity College in Maine where it had been producing hot water ever since Ronald Reagan ripped it off the White House roof.  Even then, the three college students who made the trip were stonewalled—at a meeting with the president’s aides, they refused to tell us whether they would ever put up solar panels, not to mention why not. The three young women ended up in tears on the sidewalk outside.

Those tears turned to joy two weeks later, however, when the administration suddenly announced it would take us up on our offer. In front of a thousand cheering people at the first “GreenGov” symposium, Energy Secretary Stephen Chu said “I’m pleased to announce that, by the end of this spring, there will be solar panels and a solar hot water heater on the roof of the White House.”

That was nine months ago. With one week left until the end of spring, can you guess the next part of the story?

We still have faith. A week’s a long time. In the last few days, 20,000 Americans have written to ask the president to keep his promise.  The White House is a can-do bunch (they bailed out the banks in a matter of hours!). Hope springs eternal. Sort of.

We’ll be watching the roof. (We’ll be watching more important things too, like whether the White House approves a new pipeline to the tar sands of Alberta later this year, a fifteen-hundred mile fuse to the biggest carbon bomb on the continent). Why do relationships have to be so hard?

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Tags: Energy · political symbols · politics · President Barack Obama · renewable energy · solar · Solar Energy

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