Enter the Sustainable Century – Part 1

Enter the Sustainable Century – Part 1

Strategic communication for business will be critical as President Obama ushers in a new green vision for America and the world
 “Let’s be the generation that finally frees America from the tyranny of oil. We can harness homegrown, alternative fuels like ethanol and spur the production of more fuel-efficient cars. We can set up a system for capping greenhouse gases. We can turn this crisis of global warming into a moment of opportunity for innovation, and job creation, and an incentive for businesses that will serve as a model for the world.”
— From Barack Obama’s speech announcing his Presidential Bid in Springfield, Illinois, February 10, 2007

From his campaign kick-off more than two-and-a-half years ago right up through his inauguration this past January, the environment and environmental sustainability were central themes and important priorities for candidate Barack Obama.  He’s been in office for only nine months, but President Obama is moving quickly to reframe the environmental debate and reset expectations on the part of many stakeholders.  All this change will have both an immediate and a long-term impact for business.

Making good on his stump speech commitments, President Obama, supported by a Democratic-controlled House and Senate, is quickly turning campaign pledges into national policy:

  • He has re-energized the push for a cap and trade system to limit greenhouse gases;
  • He instructed the Department of Transportation to require higher fuel economy standards;
  • He asked the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to develop a new rule limiting mercury emissions from power plants;
  • He asked the EPA to review a Bush Administration order denying California and 12 other states the right to enact auto emissions standards stricter than the current federal level;
  • He reinstated a critical practice on the part of government agencies in support of the Endangered Species Act;
  • He reversed a last minute Bush Administration order allowing offshore drilling and drilling on some public lands;
  • He mandated that federal agencies cut greenhouse gas emissions by 20 percent from 2010 levels by 2020.

And his recent address to the U.N. General Assembly underscores the way Obama wants the world to view the U.S. when it comes to the environment.  It signals his desire for America to re-join the global dialogue on climate change, and to resume a leadership position.

President Obama is tapping into a public policy sweet spot, connecting the dots between energy, the environment and economic recovery.  Even before the effects of the recession were truly felt, he espoused the economic benefits of an environmentally focused stimulus—clean tech, renewable energy, low carbon, resource efficiency—noting that it could create tens of thousands of high-skilled, well paying American jobs, spur new technologies and new industries, and foster a truly sustainable economy.

But even as the economic crisis has become the issue and the central challenge for his young administration, Obama has remained steady in triangulating energy, environment and economy.  The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, for example, allots funds for numerous environmental initiatives including $11 billion for an electricity smart grid and funding for 40 million smart meters for American homes to promote energy efficiency; $6.3 billion for state and local green efforts; $4.5 billion to modernize and efficiently energize federal buildings; and $2 billion in grants to foster the next generation of high performance batteries.  And the much hyped “Cash for Clunkers” program, while criticized by some, has been hailed by most as a win for business, a win for consumers and a win for the environment.

The Obama Administration has also committed to investing $150 billion over ten years in energy research and development, and most recently, the U.S. Department of Energy and the U.S. Treasury began accepting applications for a new $3 billion program offering direct cash payments to companies that create renewable energy facilities.

All this momentum, of course, reflects the broad public interest in and support for environmental sustainability that helped get Obama elected.  And while the environment certainly was not the only issue, for many voters it was a central concern.

But by no means will this be a slam dunk.  Continued economic uncertainty and a heated national debate over health care are casting a pall over everything the new administration does.  Well entrenched sectors, from the coal lobby to agriculture, are making their voices heard, and this is leading to dissent even within President Obama’s own party.  Securing the 67 votes needed in the U.S. Senate to ratify whatever comes out of Copenhagen will be an uphill battle.  So, when and if a climate change deal is struck, it will likely look much different than the grand, elegant solutions that were once envisioned.

So what does all this mean for companies?  I’ll share more in my next blog post…


Chad Tragakis, Senior Vice President, Hill & Knowlton, Washington D.C, and writer for the Hill & Knowlton Blog, ResponsAbility.