A Modest Green Agenda for the Coming Congress

As President Obama observed recently, he and the outgoing lame duck Congress deserve credit for a productive session. They enacted a tax cut and economic stimulus that included additional unemployment benefits, passed new food regulations, finally enacted aid to 9-11 victims, repealed the Don't Ask Don't Tell military policy and even ratified the START nuclear arms treaty with Russia. While the Congress did not focus much on new green initiatives, as Matthew L. Wald wrote in the New York Times, at least we managed to continue a set of existing subsidies for mass transit riders and the renewable energy industry. According to Wald:

"In the package signed ...by President Obama, [Congress renewed the] subsidy for wind and solar projects known as the Treasury Grant Program, the most recent form of federal aid for renewable energy."

The absence of climate or energy initiatives during the lame duck session is an indication of the relatively low priority assigned to sustainability issues by the Obama Administration. While Obama, unlike former President Bush, supports the green energy economy, in the end, and understandably, the short-term issues of death and taxes dominated the lame duck session. Like the closet you always intend to clean out, the environment remains on the back burner until catastrophe strikes, as we saw last summer when BP's oil rig exploded in the Gulf of Mexico.

As I indicated in a recent piece, the Republican control of the House of Representatives will push the Obama Administration to the political center, a sweet spot it clearly defined and occupied during the lame duck session. The President is already benefiting from this move, with his approval rating back over 50% once again. The question is what energy and environmental issues will emerge in the political center, and will they be supported by the President in the new Congress? He knows that political capital can evaporate easily and I think he will work to focus his agenda. Some of his environmental agenda may need to be defensive.

He would be wise to begin by backing EPA. Right wing efforts to curtail EPA and slow down environmental regulation and enforcement will fail and can easily be painted as the views of extremists. Protecting the environment remains as mainstream an issue as you can find. People define environmental quality as a form of security and think of it as a way that they protect their families and the health of their children. The notion that environmental regulation "kills jobs" competes with the more powerful perception that pollution is poison that can make your family sick. While environmental regulation must be portrayed as "reasonable" and regulatory agencies must move prudently and without arrogance, public support for environmental protection remains strong. People like to breathe air, drink water and eat food that is not poisoned by toxins.

EPA is on the long path to regulating greenhouse gasses through the Clean Air Act. Though cap and trade or a carbon tax would make reducing greenhouse gasses more cost effective, I don't think we'll see any of these creative approaches to climate policy until the command and control regulations are in place. I assume we will see continued incremental improvements to air and water pollution control, as renewed enforcement by the Obama Administration replaces the anti-regulation bias of the Bush years.

So what will we see? We probably won't see much action, but my sense is that the nation is ready to move forward in a few important areas. The two I would most like to see Congress act on is energy efficiency and local-level sustainability programs- such as New York City's PlaNYC 2030 initiative.

The Home Star program, nicknamed "cash for caulkers," is one initiative I expect to see. The program was passed by the House in May, 2010, but died in the Senate. The program would provide homeowners with thousands of dollars in rebates for renovating their homes to be more energy efficient. Americans waste about 30% of the energy they use, and we waste energy in our homes at a ferocious rate. Home Star would help American homeowners grab hold of this low hanging fruit. Students in Columbia University's Masters Program in Environmental Science and Policy have studied this program over the past two semesters and have concluded that it is a fairly straight forward and beneficial way to improve the economy and environmental quality at the same time.

Local level sustainability initiatives are another activity that is hugely beneficial to our communities, but quite difficult for local governments to fund in these tough financial times. A small program of planning grants could encourage local governments to integrate energy efficiency, water efficiency, waste management and other sustainability issues into local policy making. Many American localities have undertaken sustainability plans, but with a little incentive, many more could do so.

The irony of the current political environment in Washington is that a divided government requires that Republicans demonstrate that they are capable of governing. That means that they must stand for something other than saying "no". There is an opening for sustainability issues that appeal to both parties to emerge in the next two years.