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Environmentalists encouraged by Obama victory

by Alicia Swanstrom
Nov 07, 2012


Alicia Swanstrom/MEDILL

The summer drought in the Midwest resulted in low water levels in local ponds.  Despite events like the drought and devastating hurricanes, the environment was not a major issue for voters in the 2012 election.

In his election night speech to supporters in Chicago, President Obama made a brief reference to climate change.

Global warming. The two words that never made it into a presidential debate finally made an appearance in President Obama’s victory speech.

Although climate change was also missing in the early exit polls as a major concern, some local environmental activists say the issue is directly linked to the one most have been talking about – the economy. It was the top concern for 60 percent of voters.

“One of the hurdles the environmental movement has is the economy, but the environment and the economy are not two separate topics,” said Jonathan Nieuwsma of Citizens’ Greener Evanston.

The Evanston group played a large role in bringing a Community Choice Aggregation program to fruition late this summer. The program provides electricity to residents and small business owners through renewable energy sources while cutting costs. It saves the average homeowner around $250 a year, Nieuwsma said.

Jack Darin, director of the Illinois Sierra Club, noted the 20,000 jobs the wind power industry has created over the last five years in Illinois alone.

But household savings and job creation are only a portion of the economic argument for reducing carbon emissions. Environmentalists and climate scientists believe recent hurricanes and droughts are so extreme because of rising average temperatures caused by the emissions of greenhouse gasses, such as carbon dioxide. These events show a greater economic impact with Hurricane Sandy damages estimated to cost $30 billion to $50 billion.

Global warming received considerable attention in the 2008 election by both President Obama and the Republican challenger, U.S. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.). Looming economic issues this year, such as unemployment, pushed the once high-priority topic off the radar. Almost 80 percent of voters considered energy and environment to be “very important” to their vote in 2008, compared with 55 percent in 2012, according to a Pew Research Center report.

Despite the drop in voter interest from the 2008 to 2012 elections, global warming made a comeback as an urgent matter for some in the wake of Hurricane Sandy. New York Mayor Bloomberg endorsed President Obama, citing Obama’s efforts to reduce carbon emissions during his first term as the main reason for support. Mayor Bloomberg considers himself an independent and did not endorse a candidate in the 2008 election.

Darin and the Illinois Sierra Club also back President Obama.

“Regionally and locally here in Chicago, the Great Lakes were a winner on Tuesday night,” he said. Darin is referring to Obama’s Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, which budgets $300 million to clean up toxic areas and fight invasive species, such as the Asian Carp, among other goals. “Now that work will continue.”

Nieuwsma with Citizens’ Greener Evanston would like to see environmental issues like global warming higher up on the national agenda.

“We are for energy policy that advocates truly clean energy, which excludes so-called clean coal,” he said. “And that does not necessarily fit in with either presidential candidate’s all-of-the-above energy strategy.”

A national movement, “Do the Math,” lead by activist Bill McKibben is based on the premise that politicians aren’t moving fast enough. The tour, which launched in Seattle Wednesday, aims to persuade universities to get rid of their investments in fossil fuel companies.

McKibben argues anything above a 2-degree Celsius rise in average temperature – that’s 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit – would cause more extreme floods and droughts than the ones we have seen in the last year. The planet’s temperature has increased by about 1 degree Celsius since the 1950’s.

“Global warming is happening now,” said Nieuwsma. “It’s not a question of if, it’s a question of how bad is it going to get. We need to act vigorously and immediately to ensure that it doesn’t get any worse.”

Citizens’ Greener Evanston, a nonprofit organization, is hoping to grab through advocacy and education the attention that has dwindled, said Nieuwsma.

“Our challenge is getting the message out to folks that aren’t already on board. We’ve done that by holding community education events that bring in a more diverse audience,” he said. Their upcoming monthly Green Drinks event on Tuesday will cover topics including renewable energy, environmental costs of fossil fuels and an update on a Lake Michigan offshore wind park.

Jim Angel, a climatologist with the Illinois State Climatologist Office, says a shift in communication between scientists and individuals needs to occur.

“Research has shown there is an information deficit model where scientists believe you can change people’s actions by giving them more information,” he said. “That doesn’t really work.”

Instead, a two-way conversation is needed, Angel said, in which scientists address specific concerns of vulnerable groups expected to bear the burden of climate-extreme events. Angel used this two-way communication when the Midwest drought was expected – an eye-opening experience after the usual top-down approach of issuing a report, he said.

“It comes down to a more localized and personalized effort than what has been used in the past.”