With a Jewell in his cabinet, is Obama prepping to confront climate change?

To be remembered as a great president, Barack Obama has to address the greatest issue of his time. Five things the President should do to tackle climate change.
Sally Jewell accepting Interior Secretary nomination

Sally Jewell accepting Interior Secretary nomination White House

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. 

2. He should build a cabinet of hard-charging leaders who will make climate a priority in their domains. The selection of Seattle’s Sally Jewell as Secretary of Interior and John Kerry as Secretary of State are important steps in that direction. Both are more knowledgeable about climate issues, and vastly more committed to addressing them, than their predecessors. The most important choices, however, lie ahead. The departing leaders of the Environmental Protection Agency (Lisa Jackson) and the Department of Energy (Steve Chu) were the strongest senior climate advocates of President Obama’s first term. Their departures sent chills through the climate community. The selection of top-tier replacements such as Gina McCarthy for EPA and Bill Ritter for Energy would send a clear signal that President Obama is serious.

3. The President should use his executive powers to arrest or reverse the most dangerous, climate-related practices. Most of these involve the extraction, transport and burning of coal and other hydrocarbon fuels. Mr. Obama should, for example, shut down existing coal-fired power plants and make new ones impossible to permit; strictly regulate or ban coal exports; stop the importation or sale of liquid fuels from tar sands and coal liquefaction; accelerate the federal drive to electrify our vehicle fleet; and follow the rest of the industrialized world (even China!) in building a nation-wide grid of high-speed electric trains. It is not enough to complain that Congress won’t act. The President can and must do what has to be done. 

4. The President should deploy the American military in the climate cause. No part of the federal government is more energy intensive, or energy aware than the U.S. Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines. Rabid interest in ultra-efficient, distributed and renewable energy sources permeates all branches of the armed services. Every military facility should feature “living buildings,” coated with solar panels and tied together in smart, hack-proof micro-grids. The American military has been the birthplace of many historic firsts — racial integration, the GI Bill, etc. Today, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) might be the best cutting-edge science organization in the nation. The American military is poised, and eager, to lead America into a post-carbon world. The President should help it.

5. “Organizing for Action,” Obama's new advocacy group, should unleash a massive grassroots climate brigade. Designed to create an independent power base to support Obama’s top priorities, OFA boasts such top-notch political operatives as Jim Messina and David Axelrod. Its Executive Director is Jon Carson, the former chief of staff at the White House Council on Environmental Quality — and a propitious choice. OFA should be richly funded to organize a coalition that can defeat the antediluvian forces within big oil and coal. That coalition will include high tech, finance, farmers, public health, and dozens of other interest groups. But at its core will be the tens of millions of citizen activists who were inspired by Obama’s promise, and remain eager to help him realize it.

IF President Obama brings the full strength of his bully pulpit to bear on the climate issue, marshals the independent power of the cabinet departments and agencies, inspires the nation’s technical genius and entrepreneurial talent to rise to the challenge, and mobilizes the 80 percent of Americans who will support him on his quest to overcome the inertia and save the planet, he will join the tiny pantheon of great Presidents, the ones who make us proud to be Americans. 

Denis Hayes was the first national organizer of Earth Day in 1970 and is board chair of the Earth Day Network.


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Comments:

Posted Mon, Feb 11, 8:43 a.m. Inappropriate

So, tell me again . . . why was Sally Jewell nominated and not Denis Hayes? Can someone point me to an essay like this that Jewell has written?

Bluesky

Posted Mon, Feb 11, 10:19 a.m. Inappropriate

Hmmmmm. Semantic alert. So now, the inconvenient term "global warming", which gave way to "climate change" when warming trends stablized, is now being retired for "climate disruption". I haven't seen Denis this worked up about an issue since he was warning us that the world was running out of oil during the Jimmy Carter era.

Posted Mon, Feb 11, 11:51 p.m. Inappropriate

Hmmmmm. Another "reality-denial alert" from John.

ba

Posted Mon, Feb 11, 10:53 a.m. Inappropriate

I don't think it's been established that warming trends have stabilized. There are large Earth land surface tempertaure fluctuations that take place every few years which correlate with El Nino and North Atlantic temperatures. This may give the appearance that warming slowed but longer term analysis suggests otherwise.

jeffro

Posted Mon, Feb 11, 11:13 a.m. Inappropriate

Coming from Seattle is a huge strike against Sally Jewell regarding the issue of energy conservation in transport, travel and transit systems. Seattle's new start rail systems, Link LRT, Streetcar and Sounder are the nation's worst in terms of ridership, accidents and cost effectiveness. Metro and Sound Transit are perfect examples of bureaucratic waste and unaccountability whose supposedly sincere efforts inexplicably result in worsening already maniacal traffic.

When Denis Hayes advocates building a nation-wide grid of high-speed electric trains, it only shows how environmentally conscientious leaders fall prey to transportation and energy industry business interests who would rather NOT invest in more effective rail systems that impose less impact and are less prohibitively expensive. Our nation's worse travel problem by far is the daily car commute, not discretionary or luxury driving and flying between cities.

The Amtrak Cascades is not electrified nor need be. Talgo-type passenger-rail is more applicable to nearly all US railway corridors. So dazzled by the pipedream of 200mph Acela-type trainsets, Seattlers won't give a thought about the construction impact to railway corridor habitat that miles of viaduct and their construction imposes. If Sally Jewell is a cohort of Grace Crunican, Paula Hammond and Christine Gregoire, she may unknowingly or otherwise be another pretty face worn by corporate pigs to mask foul intents.

Wells

Posted Mon, Feb 11, 7:13 p.m. Inappropriate

You are right about "high speed" rail being mostly just a distraction that will keep us from doing anything practical and achievable. How about just walking before trying to run? Regular ole' trains can easily go 80 mph or more if the tracks are maintained. If they can just keep on rolling instead of stopping to wait for coal and container trains as they do now, they get places pretty quickly.

Even France has backed off somewhat from the ultra high speed rail concept. It takes something like 12 times as much energy to push a train at 200 mph as compared to 100 mph, not to mention hugely higher infrastructure costs. 200 mph is a fantasy, at least for the U.S. 100 mph is doable.

It seems likely that we will have to wait until Warren Buffett and other RR owners see profits in moving people again before we get a real revival of passenger rail in this country. Perhaps that is no bad thing. I just hope there is enough oil left to make it work when that time comes.

Posted Mon, Feb 11, 12:04 p.m. Inappropriate

"The President should use his executive powers to arrest or reverse the most dangerous, climate-related practices. Most of these involve the extraction, transport and burning of coal and other hydrocarbon fuels. Mr. Obama should, for example, shut down existing coal-fired power plants and make new ones impossible to permit" If "climate disruption" is the monster that is being described to us that would indeed be the right thing to do; Mr. Hayes is refreshingly direct in his remedies. Prohibiting self destruction by government fiat makes a lot more sense than public breast beating about coal trains. It's hard to imagine salvation coming to us because we file a few environmental lawsuits; it takes a profound change in our behavior which, at least in the next few decades, would probably require governmental action such as what Hayes suggests.

We should act as if "climate disruption" is real (even if it isn't) but, as a tactic, that is probably even less promising than those of the author. Let us pray.

kieth

Posted Mon, Feb 11, 12:54 p.m. Inappropriate

"...no federal monuments wiil be built to honor the fiscal stimulus package or Obamacare."

Or if they are built, they should be constructed at least 50 feet above sea level.

More seriously, it is refreshing to see (finally) an article in Crosscut that attempts to look beyond the thicket of political trivia that we all seem to find so fascinating. And why are we so mesmerized by the inconsequential? Because it distracts us from the daunting and terrifying realities challenging human survival.

"Sorry, don't have time right now to think about climate change because I'm so worried we'll plunge over the fiscal cliff."

woofer

Posted Mon, Feb 11, 1:32 p.m. Inappropriate

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.


Well, that's true. Just as there will be no monuments built to Watergate, Whip Inflation Now, Malaise, the Slam-Dunk, Monica Lewinsky or No New Taxes. Nothing that the author proposes can be borne on the back of an economy struggling, against an already burdensome government, for recovery. One more failed, economically crippling policy from the Obama administration will not make him great. First things first. People need to go back to work. Based on his record to date, that won't happen under this president. So the author's policy proposal should be addressed to this president's successor.

dbreneman

Posted Mon, Feb 11, 11:58 p.m. Inappropriate

Jobs and climate security aren't mutually exclusive. In fact, improving energy efficiency, protecting our coasts from (now nearly inevitable) sea level increases, rebuilding our energy grid -- all part of converting to a non-carbon economy -- would create hundreds of thousands of jobs.

ba

Posted Tue, Feb 12, 10:48 a.m. Inappropriate

But if they are government jobs, they produce no net wealth. They rely on a higher tax burden, and that suppresses real job creation even more. The government ends up taking bigger slices from a shrinking pie. It's not the case that a job is a job is a job. If the work done does not produce a profit, it consumes the profit produced by someone else.

dbreneman

Posted Mon, Feb 11, 2:52 p.m. Inappropriate

As long as China Coal Ports are allowed; the talk about climate change is nonsense. If there were climate change, and if anyone was serious about it; there would not be any push for China Coal Ports. This goes for cap and trade, ans a carbon tax as well. Then I do not see that Obama has denied the Keystone xl pipeline. Obama does not care about pollution, or climate change. The only proposals we will hear is to tax citizens more, and to use artificially heightened cost to modify the lives of non-wealthy citizens (the wealthy can easily afford to pay higher costs. Coal and fuel/oil exports will not be banned. Take a look at how Obama ran cover for BP, and then act as if Obama gives a damn about anything but foreign corporations, and multi-national corporations.

jhande

Posted Mon, Feb 11, 7:57 p.m. Inappropriate

Great points in this article. It's refreshing to read ideas fitting for such an enormous problem as human-caused climate change. Those of us who worked to build this system over the last century shouldn't feel guilty over hard work and genius... after all, who knew until recently our systems was damaging our life-supporting atmosphere, oceans and climate? Now it's a different matter though... now we know. The scientific academies of the world have spoken clearly and loudly about the matter -- what's happening, the threat it poses, and what's causing it-- us, burning fossil fuels.

For me, I see climate change as a threat to the well-being of my kids, and am adamant that we change in proportion to the problem. The system we now depend on is a big threat over the long-term, and it will be wise to put our minds to fixing it systemically, re-engineering how our systems work, and adjusting expectations where need be. As part of this, I'd hope we're mindful to look out for citizens who depend on old energy and systems for their livelihood, who may be afraid of what's needed for our survival, such that their short term threat doesn't trump our bigger, permanent one. I'm looking forward to hear what the President says about all this tomorrow-- he does seem to be looking at it clear-eyed, based on his inauguration address.

Bentler

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