The stature awarded President Obama by future historians will be very largely determined by his response to one issue: climate disruption. The President’s recent speeches, and appointments like our own Sally Jewell (as Interior Secretary) and John Kerry suggest that he recognizes this.
The difference between a good president and a great president has little to do with the exigencies of politics. While economic prosperity and domestic tranquility are vital to winning elections, no federal monuments will be built to honor the fiscal stimulus package or Obamacare.
Greatness is measured by how a leader addresses the big inflection points in history that occur on his or her watch.
Such inflection points are not always obvious. In the late 18th century, every major political figure viewed the Seven Years War as the dominant event of the era. Today, not one person in 10,000 can distinguish the Seven Years War from the Thirty Years War, or the Great Northern War, or the War of the Spanish Succession.
What is best remembered of that period is a declaration of independence by 13 rambunctious British colonies with revolutionary ideas about social, political, and economic organization.
In 2013, public attention is fixed on Afghanistan and the unemployment rate. Twenty-five years from now, these will be footnotes, not inflection points.
What really matters today? The digital revolution and the explosive rise of China are strong candidates. But the greatest challenge of our epoch is global climate disruption.
At its worst, climate disruption threatens catastrophe akin to the Five Great Extinctions that our planet experienced over the past 500 million years. Bold climate policy, on the other hand, could lead to an ultra-efficient planet powered mostly by the sun and living in a productive state of ecological harmony.
We face a choice between unparalleled, almost-irreversible devastation and a golden age. On its surface, that is not a tough choice. But to date, every President has ignored, or dodged, that decision. More than any other issue on the global agenda, we must not continue to kick this can down the road.
America, which led the world into the oil age, had an opportunity to lead it back out. Instead, in company with Saudi Arabia, China, and Canada, the United States has scuttled efforts at international climate agreements or rendered them toothless. Our system of capitalistic democracy has provided no effective counter-balance to a massive campaign of deception, funded by oil and coal companies, that has hog-tied national policy on climate disruption.
How Barack Obama addresses the climate crisis will determine whether he is remembered as a good President, or a great one.
Four years ago, after a long bitter primary campaign, a weary candidate Obama told a St. Paul, MN crowd that “generations would look back” and say “this was the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow, and our planet began to heal.”
As President, his attempts to pass a cap-and-trade law were crushed by almost-unanimous partisan opposition in Congress. By 2012, the only people who remembered his “heal-the-earth” comment were on Mitt Romney’s research team.
Today, the President seems more pragmatic and deliberate. In his Inauguration Address, he devoted more words to climate disruption than to any other single topic. “We will respond to the threat of climate change, knowing that failure to do so would betray our children and future generations,” Mr. Obama said. “Some may still deny the overwhelming judgment of science, but none can avoid the devastating impact of raging fires, and crippling drought, and more powerful storms.”
Those sound like the words of a President who has decided to bend history. A President who is prepared to tackle the biggest issue of his time.
What should he do?
1. The President should speak out boldly and soon about the goals he wants to be remembered for. Lincoln did not just ask for an Emancipation Law — he issued an Emancipation Proclamation! President Obama should commit the United States to a 25-year plan that will end our use of fossil fuels. And he should make clear that America’s scientists, industrialists and workers will achieve that energy revolution, regardless of whether China or India or Russia chooses to join the effort.
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