The Common Good

Climate Rallies and a Golfing President

This past Sunday an estimated 35,000 people gathered in Washington, D.C., to push for legislative action in response to climate change. In addition to speaking out against the proposed Keystone XL pipeline, the “Forward on Climate” rally organizers urged President Barack Obama to limit U.S. greenhouse gas emissions and transition to larger levels of renewable energy. In addition to the mass assembly near the White House, environmental groups held similar rallies in cities across the nation, including a significant turnout in Los Angeles. All together, some have described the events of the past weekend as the largest collection of climate change rallies in U.S. history.

The president has recently emerged as a potentially strong ally in the struggle against climate change, for his inaugural address included a renewed commitment to environmental leadership, as he stated: "We will respond to the threat of climate change knowing that the failure to do so would betray our children and future generations.” 

President Obama also addressed ecological concerns during his State of the Union speech, as he said: “We can choose to believe that Superstorm Sandy, and the most severe drought in decades, and the worst wildfires some states have ever seen were all just a freak coincidence. Or we can choose to believe in the overwhelming judgment of science – and act before it's too late." While conversation surrounding climate change was notably absent during his recent re-election campaign, the president appears to be making environmental concerns a top priority for his second term of office.

While President Obama seems to be a more visible environmental advocate, many are doubtful of his sincerity and question whether such statements are motivated by political calculation rather than genuine policy priorities. For example, in what can be described as a thought-provoking twist of irony, while thousands marched past the White House to move the president “Forward on Climate,” he was out golfing, which just so happens to be a sport that many environmentalists perceive as an ecological tragedy.  

The sport of golf has a wide variety of health benefits and provides numerous opportunities for relaxation and social networking, thus it should be no surprise that 15 of the past 18 U.S. presidents were known to play a few rounds. According to the National Golf Foundation, about 26.1 million U.S. citizens played at least one round of golf in 2010, which makes it one of the most popular sports in the country. However, as many golf course designers and superintendents are paying more attention to their environmental impact, far too many courses continue to provide excess levels of damage to the Earth. While some in the golf industry are trying to change the sport to be more ecologically sensitive, massive popularity and economic profit mean the changes are not happening fast enough. 

For example, according to ecosalon:

  • The U.S. is home to about 18,000 golf courses, about half the world total of 35,000.
  • It takes about 2.5 billion gallons of water to hydrate the world’s golf courses each day.
  • The U.N. estimates that 2.5 billion gallons of water per day would provide 4.7 billion people with clean drinking water.
  • The average golf course is treated with 18 pounds of pesticide per acre each year.
  • The average acre of agricultural land uses 2.7 pounds of pesticide each year.
  • Only 29 percent of U.S. golf courses participate in any formal environmental stewardship program.
  • The average U.S. golf course uses about 312,000 gallons of water per day. A desert course (such as one in Palm Springs or Las Vegas) can consume up to one million gallons of water per day.
  • The average U.S. family of four uses about 400 gallons of water per day, or one million gallons every 6.8 years.
  • According to a survey conducted by Golf Digest in 2008, 41 percent of golfers do not believe in climate change.

While the president deserves time away from the many responsibilities of his office (and we should affirm such self-care), and one can understand the lure of playing alongside Tiger Woods in Florida in mid-February (as was reported to be the case), perhaps a few rounds of golf during the same weekend as the largest climate change rally in U.S. history was in poor taste. Perhaps it is all a matter of simple and unconnected coincidence, but the ordeal provides a moment of pause and reflection, for at the very least, it makes us wonder if the president is serious about doing all that is necessary in response to the scientifically proven consequences of climate change. 

It is possible that the president’s recent golf excursion in Florida has nothing to do with his sincerity on climate change legislation. However, it is also possible that the events reveal a great deal about his environmental awareness and ambitions. 

In the midst of it all, we will soon have a deeper view into which of the two possibilities is more probable, for he will soon decide whether to support plans for the Keystone XL pipeline, which was the primary focus of the various “Forward on Climate” rallies. As many environmentalists have called the Keystone XL pipeline a potential ecological disaster, and because numerous special interest groups are pushing hard for approval of the project, how the president responds will expose some of his true legislative intentions, and we will learn whether or not his recent public speeches were grounded in personal values or political calculation. 

In other words, we may soon discover whether the Presidential tee-timing of the past weekend was an innocent outing or convicting insight.  

Brian E. Konkol is an ordained pastor of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), serves as Co-Pastor of Lake Edge Lutheran Church (Madison, Wis.), and is a PhD candidate in Theology & Development with the University of KwaZulu-Natal (South Africa). 

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