For several days I’ve been pondering how to write something interesting or insightful about Obama and What It All Means — something that hasn’t been written a hundred other places. (The internets are choked with Obama-related profundity right now.)
In the end, though, profundity is not what’s needed. Obama did plenty of that on the trail, and the very fact of his ascension to office speaks for itself.
Instead, what’s called for is some bluntness. The Obama presidency is in a political vise grip, squeezed between two facts:
- The dire situation described by the fourth IPCC report is, by all indications, an underestimate. We are careening toward catastrophe, and to avoid it we’ll likely have to virtually eliminate U.S. carbon emissions by 2050, while also engineering a whole range of difficult international agreements. If we don’t, it’s not exaggerating to say that unprecedented human misery will result, potentially putting at risk the very preconditions of human civilization.
- There is nothing close to the public or political support necessary to pass the kind of sweeping policies necessary to eliminate America’s emissions. The U.S. political class, to say nothing of the public, is nowhere near understanding or internalizing the implications of fact No. 1. By and large climate change is still viewed as a nagging, marginal, far-off problem to be addressed to the extent (and only to the extent) that it doesn’t cause any economic dislocation.
This is just another way of rephrasing Gore’s famous warning that the politically possible falls well short of what’s necessary. The politically possible has moved forward considerably with Obama taking office, Pelosi running the House, Waxman running the Energy Committee, Markey running the Energy Subcommittee, and competent professionals in charge of executive branch agencies. But it is still far, far short. Even many people in the green world don’t really get the existential urgency involved.
Over the next four/eight years, Obama (with help from many others) will bridge that gap, and we’ll have a shot at a prosperous green future. Or he won’t, and our children and grandchildren will inherit a world filled with unthinkable suffering.