“In the speech, you referenced that in the past year you had put forward an ‘all of the above’ energy strategy, yet noted that we cannot just drill our way out of our energy and climate challenge. We believe that continued reliance on an ‘all of the above’ energy strategy would be fundamentally at odds with your goal of cutting carbon pollution and would undermine our nation’s capacity to respond to the threat of climate disruption.”

-from open letter to Obama: http://ecowatch.com/2014/01/16/obama-climate-keystone-xl-fracking-arctic/

On January 16th 18 national environmental organizations sent a letter to Barack Obama in which they essentially called him out for his inconsistency, to put it mildly, when it comes to action on the climate crisis. They criticized him head-on for his “all of the above” approach. They described it as “a compromise that future generations can’t afford.” They pointed out that “it fails to prioritize clean energy and solutions that have already begun to replace fossil fuels” and that “it increases environmental injustice while it locks in the extraction of fossil fuels that will inevitably lead to a catastrophic climate future.” And there was more.

These are not new ideas in the climate movement, not at all. But what was new about this letter was the breadth of the groups which signed it. Some were not surprising, like Friends of the Earth and the Energy Action Coalition. But others were, especially the corporate-friendly Environmental Defense Fund (and I use “corporate-friendly” in an objective, not pejorative, sense).

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This letter brought back personal memories from 10 years ago when, as a result of the August, 2003 heat wave which hit western Europe, leading to 30,000 or more deaths, I decided that I needed to do more personally on the climate issue. I looked around, trying to find a group which was working in a systematic and serious way on this issue, and there were very few to be found. The major environmental groups, in particular, had their priorities elsewhere.

That has clearly changed from a decade ago, something which began to happen soon after Hurricane Katrina and Al Gore’s movie, An Inconvenient Truth.

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An Election Year Surprise

It is significant that these groups decided to put out this public criticism of Obama in a Congressional election year.

Almost all of the groups which signed this letter are supporters, explicitly or implicitly, of the Democratic Party. For those among them who make endorsements of people running for office, my guess is that somewhere between 95 and 98% of them have been of Democrats. Many have tended to be very careful about their public criticism of Democrats like Obama who, while not on the progressive wing of that party, has done some things on climate and who is certainly not a climate denier.

This statement sure seems to be a sign that this approach is changing. The urgency of the deepening climate crisis is driving what, on the surface, seems to be a less political, more issue-oriented approach.

Or is it? Is it the case that pulling back from support of lesser-evil Democrats against climate-denier Republicans is a “political miscalculation,” something which will make it more likely that Republicans take the Senate this November and possibly increase their majority of House seats?

I think there are solid reasons to think otherwise. One recent example is what just happened in the Governor’s race in the state of Virginia, not exactly a blue state. There Terry McAuliffe, a mainstream Democrat with more than his share of personal negatives and vulnerabilities, defeated arch-climate denier Ken Cuccinelli. He did so in part by openly challenging Cuccinelli on his extreme climate positions and with the accepted support of climate philanthropist Tom Steyer’s independent ad campaign highlighting the climate issue.

And then there’s Obama’s Presidential victory in 2008. Throughout that campaign Obama talked consistently about the climate issue. John McCain and the Republicans didn’t take him on as he did so. And Obama won.

How will Obama and key energy people in his administration like DOE Secretary Ernest Moniz respond? Will they stick to their head-in-the-sand, all of the above course? Or will Obama, ever-sensitive to the political winds, realize that he has to shift his position if only because Democrats need the votes and at least some enthusiasm from people who see climate as a major issue?

A lot will depend upon the groups which signed the letter and the broader climate movement. In every way we can, we must keep up the pressure that leads to growing numbers of grassroots victories over the fossil fuel industry—like preventing approval of KXL and coal exports from the northwest and a defeat for the efforts to build an export terminal for fracked gas at Cove Point, Md. We must also support candidates who are strong on climate, bring pressure on those who should be and call out climate deniers.

Let’s make 2014 a political tipping point year. This statement is a good sign that, on climate, it could very well be.