Considering that this was an inaugural address, a speech whose aims are primarily rhetorical and visionary, our 44th president devoted more of his remarks to clean energy and global warming than anyone could have expected.
Yet it may be these muscular and optimistic lines that offer the greatest encouragement to the nation and the world:
Now, there are some who question the scale of our ambitions — who suggest that our system cannot tolerate too many big plans. Their memories are short. For they have forgotten what this country has already done; what free men and women can achieve when imagination is joined to common purpose, and necessity to courage.
Obama believes the simple yet powerful words, “Make no small plans.”
We can preserve a livable climate, but it will require the biggest of plans. It will require a memory of what we have accomplished in the past, most especially during World War II — the only true model for the scale and speed of effort required.
Let’s look at what he said specifically related to energy and climate, starting with the fourth paragraph:
That we are in the midst of crisis is now well understood … [E]ach day brings further evidence that the ways we use energy strengthen our adversaries and threaten our planet.
And then, remarkably, he expanded on this point a few lines later:
For everywhere we look, there is work to be done. The state of the economy calls for action, bold and swift, and we will act — not only to create new jobs, but to lay a new foundation for growth. We will build the roads and bridges, the electric grids and digital lines that feed our commerce and bind us together. We will restore science to its rightful place, and wield technology’s wonders to raise health care’s quality and lower its cost. We will harness the sun and the winds and the soil to fuel our cars and run our factories. And we will transform our schools and colleges and universities to meet the demands of a new age. All this we can do. And all this we will do.
Then a specific mention of the new threat of global warming:
… we can meet those new threats that demand even greater effort — even greater cooperation and understanding between nations …
With old friends and former foes, we will work tirelessly to lessen the nuclear threat, and roll back the specter of a warming planet.
And then, once again, a vow to poor countries, a call to rich ones:
To the people of poor nations, we pledge to work alongside you to make your farms flourish and let clean waters flow; to nourish starved bodies and feed hungry minds. And to those nations like ours that enjoy relative plenty, we say we can no longer afford indifference to suffering outside our borders; nor can we consume the world’s resources without regard to effect.
I think this was an astonishing speech, a clarion call to act on a variety of great tasks in the strongest possible terms, most especially on clean energy, resource efficiency, and global warming.
Finally, most important, it was a call to all Americans:
What is required of us now is a new era of responsibility — a recognition, on the part of every American, that we have duties to ourselves, our nation, and the world, duties that we do not grudgingly accept but rather seize gladly, firm in the knowledge that there is nothing so satisfying to the spirit, so defining of our character, than giving our all to a difficult task.
This is the price and the promise of citizenship.
This is the source of our confidence — the knowledge that God calls on us to shape an uncertain destiny …
America. In the face of our common dangers, in this winter of our hardship, let us remember these timeless words. With hope and virtue, let us brave once more the icy currents, and endure what storms may come. Let it be said by our children’s children that when we were tested we refused to let this journey end, that we did not turn back nor did we falter; and with eyes fixed on the horizon and God’s grace upon us, we carried forth that great gift of freedom and delivered it safely to future generations.
It bears repeating again and again and again — if we do not preserve a livable climate, if we do not stabilize atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide at 450 ppm or below, then our children’s children will say we were tested and failed. Indeed, they will probably curse our names.
Thankfully, we have a president who clearly understands the challenge and the opportunity, a president who is willing to use his considerable rhetorical and political talents to save even those who don’t think we need saving.
Good luck, Mr. President.