Stop Press: The green business case for backing Obama

It may not have sparked the imagination, but the result of this election really matters to the global green economy

05 Nov 2012, 14:54

When it comes to entirely predictable news stories, reporting that green businesses and NGOs are endorsing President Obama ahead of tomorrow's election is right up there with the exclusive revelation that turkeys are not that keen on Christmas. Those who are concerned about environmental issues are never going to vote for a Republican party that has turned climate change denial into a policy position. And while they might be frustrated at a lack of progress from Democrats, they know only one candidate in this election wants to see America's burgeoning green economy prosper.

But as Americans prepare to go to the polls, it is worth exploring again how an election that, on this side of the Atlantic at least, has failed to capture the public imagination is still of immense importance to both the US and global clean tech and green business sectors.

The gap between President Obama and his Republican challenger Mitt Romney on environmental issues is wider than the Grand Canyon, and while no one would accuse the president of delivering unqualified success for the green economy, there is almost universal agreement amongst green commentators that a Romney presidency would do immense damage to America's burgeoning clean tech sector.

Romney stands accused of changing his mind more often than the weather when it comes to climate change and environmental policies, but we can draw some pretty reasonable conclusions about the steps he would take if he proves the polls wrong and finds himself in the White House next January.

We know from his campaign commitments that he would allow the Production Tax Credit for the wind industry to lapse at the end of this year, bringing an end to the recent surge in onshore wind farm investment.

We know from his stump speech that he would approve the Keystone XL tar sand pipeline, allowing carbon-intensive tar sand oil to flood the US market.

We know from his much-trumpeted Energy Plan that he would seek to make US energy independent by 2020, primarily through a huge increase in domestic fossil fuel extraction.

We know from his talk on deficit reduction, that renewable energy projects and low carbon infrastructure funding programmes would be the first in line for swingeing budget cuts, even if that meant cutting clean coal funding towards an industry he claims to inherently support.

We know from the Republican platform that he would declare all-out war on the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Obama-era rulings that allowed it to start regulating greenhouse gas emissions. And we also know that he would give serious consideration to selling off all federal lands, on the grounds that "private ownership has been our best guarantee of conscientious stewardship".

Finally, we know from his response to Superstorm Sandy that the Republican Party will not allow him to so much as mention climate change, even as climate change impacts become ever more severe. The pressure on him to withdraw fully from the UN-backed negotiations to deliver a new international climate change treaty would be immense.

If his campaign is any indicator, a Romney presidency would take George W Bush's energy and environmental policies and put them on steroids.

In contrast, a second term for Obama promises an acceleration of the president's all-of-the-above energy strategy with its support for renewables, nuclear, gas, and clean coal, the continuation of EPA rules seeking to restrict greenhouse gas emissions and drive clean technology investment, and, in the wake of Superstorm Sandy, a renewed focus on climate change mitigation and adaptation.

The extent to which he will be able to enact this strategy depends on either the Democrats securing control of Congress at some point in the next four years or, more unlikely still, the GOP engaging in bi-partisan co-operation in order to forge an effective environmental and energy policy framework. Neither of these miracles is likely to occur, but as Obama has shown over the past four years through vehicle emissions standards and astute regulation, it is possible for a president to support the development of the green economy without control of Congress.

If the polls are to be trusted, green businesses should be preparing for an Obama victory that would deliver four more years of gradual progress on environmental issues, perhaps mixed with an occasional bold move as the post-Superstorm Sandy public mood demands more ambitious action on climate change. Yes, many greens will be remain frustrated at Obama's continued support for domestic oil drilling, his repeated failure to categorically rule out the Keystone XL pipeline, and his pre-Superstorm Sandy near-silence on climate change. But, faced with a straight choice between a president who clearly wants to do something to address existential environmental threats and one who declares himself unsure whether there is even a problem with the climate, greens are only going to jump one way.

Inevitably, this assessment of the respective campaigns comes with the disclaimer that many green businesses would continue to prosper regardless of who wins tomorrow. After all, energy efficiency remains a goal of politicians across the spectrum, while many a dyed-in-the-wool Republican state in the South and Midwest boast advanced wind and solar markets, because developers have realised that the cost of these low carbon technologies is falling fast. Countless states will continue to provide supportive policies for clean tech firms, even if a President Romney refuses to acknowledge that the country needs to cut greenhouse gas emissions.

However, we saw between 2000 and 2008 how a president who is openly hostile to environmental policies and clean technologies undermines investor confidence and makes it significantly harder for green businesses to secure the political and public support that they need.

A Romney presidency would be bad news for the green economy, while an Obama victory would promise a welcome boost to green businesses across the US and further afield. It could also hold out the (still sadly unlikely) prospect of a new US narrative being forged on climate change and green growth. A narrative that might finally force the GOP to realise the wisdom in Republican Senator Lindsey Graham's recent warning that the party is "not generating enough angry white guys" to win elections using its current play-book, and acknowledge that it needs to take a more responsible stance on climate change and green growth, amongst a whole host of other issues. Now that really would be news worth reporting.

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Previously known as the BusinessGreen Blog, James' Blog features musings, observations and occasional rants from BusinessGreen editor James Murray

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