As I mentioned in a previous post, many of my colleagues in climate-action circles are delighted at the detailed commitments the presidential candidates in the Democratic field are making around global warming. It seems ungrateful to ask them for more. But ask we must.
We need to know what they’ll do to act quickly. And we need to hear their unifying vision for the post-carbon world.
On speed: We’ve all read Jim Hansen’s warning that the international community must take significant action within a decade if we wish to avoid the most dangerous consequences of global warming.
Now the head of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has moved up the deadline. In announcing the IPCC’s final report on Nov. 16, Rajendra Pachuari warned, “If there’s no action before 2012, that’s too late. What we do in the next two to three years will determine our future. This is the defining moment.”
So the question we must ask the candidates is not only what they’ll do, but when they’ll do it. What, for example, is each candidate’s plan for the first 180 days of the presidency — the six-month honeymoon period between inauguration and the middle of August, when Congress traditionally takes its summer recess?
What will the next president do about our constipated Congress? Many of the proposals announced by the candidates so far would have to be approved on the Hill, where bold intentions and good ideas go to die. The best way to deal with Congress, with all due respect, may be to avoid it as often as possible.
So, will the next president be willing to act unilaterally with assertive, even aggressive use of executive authority — like George Bush, except for nobler purposes? Who among the candidates is willing to promise, as FDR did, that “In the event that Congress should fail to act, and act adequately, I shall accept the responsibility and I will act.”
We’ll address these issues in the upcoming Presidential Climate Action Plan, scheduled for release on Dec. 4. PCAP offers more than 100 policy and program proposals for the president’s first 100 days in office. We’ll release the first edition now, just as 130 nations are convening in Bali to talk about what happens after 2012 when the Kyoto Protocol expires, and just before the presidential primaries begin in January.
PCAP will be the most comprehensive national climate action agenda yet presented to the American public (or to the candidates). Early next year, we’ll release a legal analysis of what the president can do immediately under executive authority. Over the next nine months, we’ll track emerging science, policy, and politics, conduct more studies, and issue the final action plan two months before the general election. We’ll give you a jump on the announcement on this blog, along with information on how you can offer ideas for the final plan.
On vision: We’ve all seen the nightmare of climate change, painted in numbers by scientists and in pictures by filmmakers. What is the dream? If we are moving away from fossil fuels, the industrial economy, and greenhouse-gas emissions, what are we moving toward?
A poll just published by The Economist shows that 72 percent of primary voters in America believe the nation is on the wrong track. Another 8 percent aren’t sure. But what is the right track? What is our shared vision of a post-carbon world? What will it look like, and why should we fight for it?
The climate challenge is so big and requires such fundamental changes that we won’t get it done unless the nation rallies behind it. The clear and present danger might unite us, as it continues getting clearer and more present. But we would waste less time and money if most Americans agreed on a compelling vision of the nation after carbon.
Good ideas alone aren’t enough. The true test of leadership in this campaign will be the candidates’ ability to articulate a positive vision for the post-carbon America and to unify the nation around it.
This is not our father’s presidential election. We are talking about transforming an economy, infrastructure, and resource base that has developed and sustained American society over 200 years. We’re talking about rising from our couches in sufficient numbers to meet a challenge as great as any American ever has faced. It is indeed the defining moment of our generation.
I know the candidates are besieged by big issues: Iraq, health care, whether to issue drivers’ licenses to undocumented immigrants. I know it’s not smart to press the Republican candidates for a bold climate plan just now, while they’re courting their base. They’re likely to be bolder after the primaries. But wouldn’t it be nice to be clear and united about where we’re going, and to know that we are electing a president who has the right stuff to lead us there with all due speed?