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Optimism -- For the First Time in 8 Years

I joined Tuesday's huge crowd in Washington to witness the inauguration of our 44th President. The people who traveled from all over the country had worked to elect Barack Obama and create a community of hope, optimism, and readiness to tackle the challenges, and that spirit pervaded the Mall.

For me, as for so many, a big part of the amazement and deep joy that I experienced was because our nation had elected an African-American as our president. The ideals and the movement that made Barack Obama's election possible stretch back to the American Revolution, through the Civil War and the great social movements of the 20th century—steady, hard work to broaden our democracy and push it to live up to its founding ideals. Obama didn't create this movement; it created the opportunity that he and his unique talents have stepped into.

As Obama took the oath of office, I was remembering years before when, as a young lawyer in North Carolina, I went to court over and over fighting discrimination to make the vote of African-Americans meaningful and to end discrimination on the job. Had anyone predicted this back then, when we were struggling to bring political power to African-Americans, we'd have been considered deranged.

We also might have been considered loony more recently had we predicted that today we would have a president with a strong environmental agenda and an ambitious clean energy plan to back it up.

But it's happened, and it's given rise to an unfamiliar sense of optimism that's been missing for eight years. Stoking that optimism are these words of President Obama from just a few days ago, putting forth his vision for the immediate future:

To finally spark the creation of a clean energy economy, we will double the production of alternative energy in the next three years. We will modernize more than 75 percent of federal buildings and improve the energy efficiency of two million American homes, saving consumers and taxpayers billions on our energy bills.

Based upon such promises, and because he has surrounded himself with several strong environmental appointees, we should see these actions during the early days of the Obama administration:

  • Many green initiatives in the upcoming stimulus package.
  • A sea change in America's role internationally, from one of arrogance and condescension to leadership and collaboration, including on climate.
  • Quick action to allow California and other states (a dozen have declared their intention to follow California's lead) to set stiffer vehicle emission standards than current federal standards.
  • A green light to the Environmental Protection Agency to begin regulating carbon dioxide as a greenhouse gas. The Supreme Court ruled in that direction nearly two years ago; the Bush administration defied the ruling.
  • Substantial movement toward returning science to its proper role in informing decisions on the environment and public health.
  • Steps toward removing mercury from power plant and cement kiln emissions.
  • Progress toward restoring the scope of the Clean Water Act.
  • And a new day at the Department of Energy on renewables and efficiency.

We must also, however, face the reality of the deep economic hole we are in, and the shackles it will put on all good intentions. The immense demands on the federal budget simply won't allow the kinds of increases we need in environmental protection and enforcement of existing laws. And, the urgent necessity to create jobs will almost certainly cause some conflicts.

The economic crisis is likely to mean cuts in the budgets of environmental agencies at all levels, federal, state, and local. The California budget crisis, for instance, has frozen funding for hundreds of environmental projects. Agencies will not have the staffing and funding to adequately enforce the laws we have on the books. This puts the onus on citizen groups to become involved more deeply in enforcement efforts. And, finally, the outgoing administration is leaving behind a horrendous mess that will have to be cleaned up, and that will take time and money.

Fortunately, President Obama isn't alone as he begins his journey of change. He has swept into the White House with a mandate of wide support from a nation that wants to move forward into a clean and healthy future. Most Americans, by an overwhelming margin, are hoping he succeeds. Old divisions are melting and we are becoming a people united in our adversity and in our hope—a people ready to roll up our sleeves and start doing the hard work that surely will make that future ours.

We all need to quadruple our efforts to create the possibilities for Obama and the Congress and for progress at the state and local level, too. If we don't, politics as usual and the interests that control Washington will steer things their way. As Obama said over and over during the campaign, this isn't about him—it's about us. That is even more true with him in office than during the campaign.