By Barbara Kessler
Green Right Now

The cork is off the champagne on the presidential election – and many environmentalists who’ve felt stifled by the Bush Administration’s indifference, hostility or lukewarm interest in ecological issues, including global warming, are giddy with new possibilities.

Frances Beinecke, head of the non-profit Natural Resources Defense Council, sounded buoyant in an address on the NRDC website: “Barack Obama’s election is a huge win for everyone exhausted from playing defense. Count us among them. It rekindles our hope that environmental protection may be restored to its rightful place as a treasured American value.”

Gene Karpinski, head of the League of Conservation Voters, was no less ebullient. “America embraced change today. And the planet will be better for it,” he announced.

Karpinski noted that, along with Obama, the nation also elected some environmental-minded senators, such as cousins Mark Udall (D-Colo.) and Tom Udall (D-N.M.), from a family with a long conservation history.

Greenpeace cleverly marked the moment with a electronic picture postcard to Obama with a “to do” list affixed with checkmarked items like “create jobs”, “boost economy”, “save the world”.

Save the world indeed. But where to begin? As with the economy, the path forward will be complicated. Barack Obama’s election may mean a warmer reception for environmental advocates, but many clashing interests and priorities still clutter the green highway.

Should coal power be nurtured into a new era of “clean coal” production, or summarily replaced with alternative electricity generation that doesn’t consume mountains — but hasn’t been scaled up? Are more incentives needed to boost solar, wind and geothermal research? Where will the money come from? How does the U.S. lead on global warming, when it is the second biggest emitter of greenhouse gas emissions (now that China is passing us) on the planet? Can Americans conserve enough to break their dependence on foreign oil? Will struggling automakers deliver on their promise of more efficient cars?

So many questions, such a long agenda, and such a poor economy — no small detail as witnessed by the defeat last night of an initiative in California that would have given rebates to clean-fuel car buyers. Voters apparently didn’t think the state could afford it.

So where does the new president tee off?

We asked a few professional environmental policymakers how they’d advise President-elect Obama.

Some said the new administration should immediately signal that it is ready to lead on the urgent issue that looms over all others: climate change.

“We’ve got to take a long term outlook and restore our image globally… demonstrating that we are serious about our commitment to reducing our own carbon emissions, engaging China and taking a leadership seat at that table,” said Ginette Hemley, senior vice president for policy at the World Wildlife Fund, which recently put out a “Greenprint” for the nation’s newly elected leaders.

Specifically, the incoming administration should send an observing delegation to the upcoming United Nations Climate Change Conference in Poznan, Poland in December, a prelude to re-crafting the Kyoto Treaty, she said.