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Tree-hugging, American-style

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It's the weekend and Oregonians are spending it in the same way they spend much of their leisure time: soaking up the natural beauty of their state's beaches, waterfalls and mist-veiled forests. On Cannon Beach, the sea fog rolling in from the Pacific is so thick that the signature landmark of Haystack Rock looms in the distance like a ghost of itself. The wet sand below is burnished to a mother-of-pearl shine, across which families, couples and running dogs are silhouetted like the cast of a shadow puppet play.

The opaque landscape seems a fitting meta phor for the current political view in Oregon. The feeling in the air is one of relief, as if Barack Obama's election represents not just vast change, but also a return to normality - to having an American president once again equipped with an intelligence and vision equal to his position. After the euphoria, however, came the wait, which is where Oregon finds herself this weekend. Like the view up Cannon Beach, the months ahead hold the promise of brightness, but they are also obscure, and punctuated with the shadow of more than one rock on the horizon.

One of the greatest challenges facing Obama's administration will be to redefine America's relationship with the issue of climate change. His advisers could do a lot worse than take a lead from Oregon and its largest city, Portland. When I told friends I would be visiting Oregon, one of them, Graham, responded with: "Ah, Portland, the city of the future." I figured that Graham, as founder of, the online ecobible with tips on everything green, should know what he was talking about. When I arrived, it wasn't hard to see his point. Thirty years of progressive state and city legislation have repeatedly made Oregon and Portland rank first in national polls for greenness and sustainability.

Half of Portland's energy comes from renewables. An urban growth boundary established in the 1970s has protected 25 million acres of forest and farmland, while an integrated public transport system and green building regulations have resulted in a low-carbon population. On a state level, things are getting even more ambitious. The governor recently unveiled plans to make all Oregon's homes and buildings produce net-zero emissions by 2030.

Kick-starting America's commitment to a new age of sustainability will be no small task, but Obama and the example of the West Coast states might just prove to be a crucially successful combination. While Obama was not the greenest of Democratic candidates (that was John Edwards), his ability to revitalise the historical language of America - of liberty, equality and change - is just what the US environmental debate needs.

There is a pioneering quality to the way the West Coast states have approached climate change over the past eight years. While the motor industry dinosaurs of Detroit are pleading for bailout funds, electric car start-ups in California, such as Tesla and Fisker, are attracting increasing flows of venture capital. It is this pioneering spirit that Obama could reframe as the next step in America's story. By underpinning progressive, sustainable thinking with the old American values of getting things done, of leading the world, the United States could make what was once perceived as "tree-hugging" idealism its natural inheritance. It's a big ask, but for the first time in eight years it feels possible.

Owen Sheers's novel "Resistance" is published by Faber & Faber (£7.99)

This article appears in the 22 December 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas and New Year special