As the economy tailspins, President Franklin D. Roosevelt has replaced Abraham Lincoln as the favored Great President of commentators, against whom Obama is most often measured (or illuminated). President Obama still expresses his "affinity" with Lincoln and, as we are learning about this smart and subtle man, he makes the point with small, deft gestures. Seafood stew was served for lunch on Inauguration Day, just as it was for President Lincoln. So which is he, another Lincoln or an FDR? And which crisis -- the looming secession of the southern states in 1862 or the Great Depression of 1932 -- is the better model for our own terrible straits?
Looking up from my keyboard, I saw a perfect illustration of what's happening underneath ice sheets in Greenland and Antarctica. Two recent snowstorms dumped eight inches of heavy snow, followed by an afternoon of very warm air and a sharp rain. The rainwater lubricated the snow packs on my neighbor's roof and they began to slide. The temperature fell quickly with nightfall, leaving us with a perfect example of dynamic ice. See the photo below the fold:
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.
Dear President Obama, James and Anniek Hansen urge you to pay attention to the particulars of your administration's climate policy as a first order of business. The devil's in the details, the Hansens argue, and the broad language with which you address the crisis does not seem to acknowledge the "profound disconnect" between climate policy and climate science. Your approach to global warming was deftly crafted to appear strong and be vague, of course, a smart reading of what the electorate, even in Democratic primary states, would tolerate and one reason why you triumphed in a field of candidates that included several who tried to run on climate. It is one thing to sidestep a campaign issue voters are unwilling to face -- but pragmatic campaign decisions are not binding on the President of the United States of America when the world is coming to an end. You are faced with an insoluble crisis and are weaker for the subtle campaign strategy that helped elected you. There is no functional solution to the climate catastrophe in policies now on the table and you take office with no mandate to advance one. The U.S. cannot muster the resources and resolve necessary to lead the world to safety if your administration does no more than plump domestic "green jobs" and "equitable stimulus" programs -- progressive rhetoric for the stump and nothing more -- and endorse decades-old cap-and-trade policy ginned up by environmentalists looking for policy acceptable to corporate "climate action" partners. As our first organizer President, you know that the right course of action is not to tinker with the details of policy, as Hansen does, but to rewrite the terms of the debate. The problem is that there is no conflict and it is therefore difficult to bring the resources of the "bully pulpit" to bear. The bold move is to do nothing.
Last Friday, I lead a favorite Green Corps workshop on protest songs. When I first taught the session, years ago, I said that an organizer or campaigner might only be called upon to sing two songs in their career: We Shall Overcome at civil rights gatherings, and Solidarity Forever at labor conferences. The two experiences are very different. We Shall Overcome pours forth with spirit. Folks hold hands and sway in unison, while Solidarity Forever is generally plodding, the audience still, reading, the lyrics, off a program. Now it is true that the civil rights anthem is the better song …
There are several fundamental areas of disagreement that underlay the ostensible topics of debate here on Grist. I have pulled together three planning and training devices used by organizers and campaigners in the PIRG tradition, as well as Green Corps, that are helpful in surfacing and naming such disagreements -- a common language for dispute, if you will. Continuum of environmental action A strength of environmentalism had been the flowering of its forms and politics. Our power has declined in direct proportion as our diversity has narrowed to an orthodox cannon of acceptable forms of environmental advocacy. At the height of our power, US environmentalism boasted vibrant organizational forms across a spectrum of strategy, tone, ideals and, probably most important, insider/outsider roles, particularly protest. It is inappropriate to stuff that diversity into the straightjacket of one scale, but I've done so anyway because it underlines the overall point. (I don't want to be flooded with complaints the this or that box is too small or the wrong color. If anyone feels strongly about it, to paraphrase Tom Leher, I am prepared not only to withdraw the chart but to swear under oath that I never created it to begin with.) In 1982 U.S. environmentalists had powerful organizations across the breadth of approach. Today, we are highly concentrated in a handful of specialized areas. But rather than acknowledging that we are weakened by this trend, we seem to be driving even further in the direction of splintering what is already an extremely fragile institution. The value of drawing the continuum is that it encourages us to look at our efforts on an institutional scale, rather than a myopic organizational view.
Tony Kreindler reiterates EDF's position that the short-term targets in Lieberman/Warner are strong, that its essential framework is sound, and that we have 40 years to strengthen its weak areas ... but don't expect to do so anytime soon. In his recent Grist series, Kreindler wrote, "the political landscape in 2009 will be much like today's as far as climate change legislation goes." This is an astonishing admission about the state of U.S. environmentalism. The hard work of decades, over a billion in assets dedicated to climate action, the certain election of a pro-cap-and-trade policy president, a Northwest Passage ice free for the first time in human history, and methane bubbling so furiously in Siberian bogs that melt water does not freeze ... will have no significant impact on political conditions, in EDF's view. It's much worse than that, of course. Kreindler's appraisal was made months before gasoline broke $4.00 a gallon and our supposed majority support vanished as quickly as spilled gasoline hitting hot pavement.
Bill McKibben spoke about 350.org recently at the Jamaica Plain Forum. Coming on the heels of recent talks by Ross Gelbspan, also at the JP Forum, and Jim Hansen, in Lexington, Mass., Bill's talk completed a trifecta of area appearances by climate action patriots. My friend Andrée, who attended all three events, said: "Hansen has the reserve of a scientist, and the certainty of someone who knows he is right. McKibben is just like his writing -- philosophical, wry and funny, and Gelbspan ..." she paused ... "Gelbspan is a mensch." Like McKibben himself, 350.org may be tagged as too expansive, missing a sharp political point. I agree with Lorna Salzman's concerns, but I do not think 350.org can or should try to be all things. McKibben and the Step It Up crew have set out a tremendous undertaking, trying to do in very short order what U.S. environmental organizations and funders -- with thousands of staff, millions of members, a billion+ in assets, and decades of lead time -- never attempted. Those who believe it is high time we turn our institution to the purpose for which is was created have a great deal of heavy lifting to do, and those efforts will be strengthened by 350.org, for these reasons:
Idly watching TV the other day, my attention was caught by the arresting image of Al Sharpton and Pat Robertson sitting on a sofa. The artfully shot, 15-second spot is one of the first blitz of television ads from We Can Solve It, Al Gore's $300 million project to build up a public base of support for climate action. The two resemble each other, looking as sleek and plump as sea otters after a good feed. Sharpton and Robertson fence good naturedly, following the strange-bedfellows format of the ad series. Robertson puns, "So get involved; it's the 'right' thing to do," and Sharpton ripostes with the Reagan line, "Now there you go again!" The thing is well done and I enjoyed it, but I was also aggravated by the choice of spokespersons -- and the more I thought about it, troubled by the deeper meaning of the ad.