A plethora of economic and security challenges await Barack Obama, and he will doubtless devote great effort to them. But during his campaign, the new American president also highlighted another challenge that he intended to address - an environmental crisis that threatens the entire world, and especially the climate changes that scientists are predicting in the years to come.
The new administration evidently understands what scientists and environmental activists have been claiming for some time: that the environmental crisis is an economic and even existential threat. It will not be possible to build a stable economy if coastal cities are flooded and agricultural areas become deserts. It will not be possible to forge stable relationships among countries if there is a shortage of water. And of course, there will not be much joy to life on earth if mankind continues to destroy all that is beautiful in the world, and its flora and fauna.
Obama has already taken the first practical step toward implementing what he terms the "Green Deal," under which he has pledged to invest tens of billions of dollars in developing green energy: He appointed scientists with an environmentalist worldview to senior posts in key scientific and energy agencies, following years in which these agencies were controlled by people hostile to pro-environment policies.
The agency most urgently in need of new leadership is the Environmental Protection Agency, which in recent years has demonstrated a pattern of reacting and distorting scientific publications that did not accord with the outgoing administration's views. As a result, an agency that in the past led global environmental policy has lost respect and influence.
The biggest challenge facing the new administration will be creating a society that consumes fewer natural resources and uses green energy. This will require massive investment in research and development into alternative energy, such as solar facilities, as well as energy-saving and pollution-reducing technologies. The new president will have to cancel some of the previous administration's initiatives, including legislation that eased penalties for polluters and enabled the continued construction of facilities such as coal-based power plants.
One of Obama's first tests will be how he deals with the big American auto manufacturers, which are in a severe financial crisis. Many environmental experts argue that to obtain a federal bailout, the companies should be required to promise to invest heavily in developing hybrid or electric cars. However, it is still not clear when and how such cars will be sold at a price that enables the general public to buy them, as opposed to a handful of the environmentally conscious wealthy consumers.
The new administration will also have to take into account that an important component of coping with the environmental challenge is altering lifestyles and consumption habits. Jerald Schnoor, editor of the journal Environmental Science and Technology, published an article in which he listed ten environmental tasks for Obama. One of them (which seems a bit over-optimistic) he termed the "Us Challenge." Americans he argued, are longing for the chance to take part in a better tomorrow. All they need is to be urged to do something other than shop. Americans are willing to sacrifice, to save energy, to walk to work, to ride bikes to school and to use public transportation. Just ask us, he urged Obama.
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