As meaningful as his presidency is, Obama will not act fast enough on the climate crisis
Now is the winter of our discontent
Made glorious summer by this sun of York;
And all the clouds that lowered about our house
In the deep bosom of the ocean buried.
– William Shakespeare, King Richard the Third
To complain that President Barack Obama is not serious enough about climate strikes most U.S. environmentalists as strange, almost incomprehensible behavior. This is a time for celebration and new beginnings and any small doubts we harbor are easily assuaged by our confidence in the man who is president. Those who are not swept up in the new optimism seem small — either nit-pickers of detail who miss the big picture (what did he mean by “harness the sun and the winds and the soil“?) or the Gloster’s of our victory — cramped and parsimonious in spirit, prone to petty grievance.
Our feelings now are in accord with our conduct over the last decade and more. We are always optimistic, it is our nature. When politicians send mixed signals we embrace the positive and accept the troubling as pragmatic, necessary concessions. When offered half a loaf we take it and proclaim ourselves full.
But this is no compromise to be swallowed, is it? After eight years in the wilderness, we look out onto a playing field dominated by President Obama, House Speaker Pelosi, Senator Boxer, and Congressman Markey, and we see immense promise. In Obama’s majestic inaugural address we heard climate mentioned, then mentioned again, and again, and, “he gets it!” we thought. This is what we endured for, this is what we campaigned hard for, and the sweetness in the D.C. air is more glorious than we had imagined.
Except for three things:
- The time-line for climate action has been cut to four years.
- The Democratic plan of action is utterly inadequate.
- Climate is a second-tier problem for President Obama.
Were any one of these things not the case, we would face a very different prospect. If we had more time (enough to aim for fundamental change in a second-term Obama administration), if we had a true, functional, global solution on the table to advance, or if President Obama defined the paramount objective for the nation and his presidency by staving off global cataclysm, then U.S. environmentalists would have a point of leverage and reason to admit a small measure of optimism.
To expect that President Obama will address the crisis, but neither come to terms with the climate time-line, re-design the solution, or focus the nation on this single risk, is a willing suspension of disbelief, turning politics into a movie where presidents have powers as fantastical as movie kung fu.
It is our job to define the terms of conflict within which politicians maneuver. If we are to do this — the only other option is to wait until climate impacts become severe, which is certainly too late — we must first break our own way out of the three-sided box of self-reinforcing, self-deceptive policy. That can only occur by mounting a serious challenge to orthodox thinking within our major organizations and the private foundations that underwrite climate program. There is no time to build an alternative institution, nor can current approaches be simply bypassed by faster campaigning. The worldview of incremental change, accommodation to immoral behavior, and moderation in the face of fossil-fuel blitzkrieg must be demolished.