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President Obama’s Environmentalism February 18, 2010

Posted by Jill S. Schneiderman in environmental justice.
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photo by Chris Brizzard, San Francisco Bay View

President Obama has taken plenty of heat lately because he has included nuclear power, offshore oil drilling and “clean coal” as foundations of his energy policy.  His recent budget proposes to triple federal construction-loan guarantees for new nuclear reactors at a cost of $54.5 billion. Leaders of organizations including the leaders of the Center for Biological Diversity, Natural Resources Defense Council, and Friends of the Earth, among others, have expressed disappointment in what they view as the President’s limited actions in the arena of energy and environment. But frankly I’m not surprised and I’m not terribly upset by Obama’s choices. We are faced with the seemingly intractable problem of voracious consumption of fossil fuel resources and concomitant global warming. What’s a leader to do?

As Senator Obama, the President supported development of nuclear power and when he became President, he appointed as Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar, a fifth generation Coloradan who environmentalists felt was too much of a champion for farmers and ranchers. Why am I not so stunned or dejected by President Obama’s choices on these matters? Because his priorities reflect his history as an African American community organizer in Chicago in neighborhoods like the Southside and Altgeld Gardens housing development, areas that have been described as “toxic doughnuts” because of being surrounded by waste facilities and other locally undesirable land uses.

What President Obama may view as among the most pressing environmental issues of the day are issues of environmental injustice—instances in which African American and other people of color communities have become environmental sacrifice zones where polluting industries compromise the health of children and adults who live daily with releases of hazardous substances into proximal air, water and land. For the President, environmentalism may mean prioritizing the rescue of people from contaminated environments rather than protecting environments from people who pollute.