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.

Grist thanks its sponsors. Become one.

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.

Grist thanks its sponsors. Become one.

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.

It will require immense determination to forestall the political forces coiled in anticipation of quick administration action on climate, but you must stiff-arm your advisers, step outside the Congressional climate quagmire, leave environmentalists hanging, and delay international engagement.

It is crucial that the nation does not move directly from the old conflict, “is global warming real?” directly into action, without first facing the terrible questions “how bad is it?” and “what do we need to do?”

There are two aspects to our national character, and the flip side of our refusal thus far to deal with the gathering crisis will be another great awakening of American optimism, energy, and willingness to sacrifice. That national spirit is only called forth by terrible risk and resolve in leadership.

By breaking free from awkward compromises and dismal tradeoffs and flexing unilateral powers of the Presidency, a dynamic, realistic, yet optimistic agenda can be set in motion that will draw our reluctant eyes to the danger, put dramatic examples of rapid change on display, and demonstrate bold and vigorous leadership. Then the time will be propitious to propose a new domestic and international agenda.

Consider how different the political climate would be if you were to take the following actions as your first order of business:

Gore’s Challenge

Although there is some question about whether or not you actually endorsed Al Gore’s call to shift U.S. electricity generation to renewables,1 no matter; make Gore’s challenge U.S. policy, Mr. President, by issuing an Executive Order setting a national goal of zero carbon emissions electricity generation by 2020.

275 ppm

As Jim Hansen suggests, the National Academy of Sciences should review and comment on recent climate science findings. You should use the opportunity, Mr. President, to explain the precautionary principle to the American people and demonstrate both intellectual integrity and political courage by asking the NAS to consider whether a rapid return to pre-industrial concentrations of atmospheric carbon (265-275 ppm) is warranted.

Climate Civil Defense

FEMA should undertake a nationwide inventory of civil defense preparedness for storm surges on rising sea levels and conduct preliminary engineering studies on the feasibility and costs of erecting dikes, constructing hurricane barriers, reconstituting coastal wetlands, and other necessary measures to protect coastal homelands.

Driving Hybrids

Of 60,000 vehicles added to the U.S. government fleet in 2008, 239 were hybrids and 2 were all electric. You should combine vehicle needs for the next four years, roughly 250,000 vehicles, and put them up for bid, Mr. President, specifying standards for a hyper-efficient, highly crash resistant, durable fleet of hybrid vehicles averaging 65 mpg.

Climate Early Warning

There are three ice shelves large enough to end the world, yet none are being monitored on a constant basis. Congress should be asked for immediate, emergency funding to place permanent research camps on the Eastern and Western Antarctic Ice Shelves and in Greenland, military satellite capacity should be reassigned to monitor ice shelves for early signs of breakup, other key factors (i.e. ocean temperature/current) should all be monitored, and an international command center should be established to coordinate information (an NSA for climate intelligence).

Hawaii Poster Child

Go home, hang with your friends, focus the nation on our own island-in-rising-seas story, and invest hugely in making Hawaii a demonstration renewables state. Already on the forefront, with a federal partnership and funding, Hawaii could aim for a realistic zero carbon (net) goal.

U.S. Military & Renewables

Iraq has taught some in the U.S. military that renewables strengthen war-fighting capabilities.2 The military has set the relatively ambitious goal of generating 25 percent of its energy from renewables by 2025 and is making good headway, but more in response to ad hoc initiatives than determined Pentagon leadership. Acting as Commander in Chief, Mr. President, you should double the goal. This will strengthen centers of leadership aiming to put the U.S. military onto a new footing of efficiency and renewables (the same folks thinking in terms of climate challenges), and use the institution to fuller advantage as an important agent of U.S. social change.

Solar Iraq

Electricity demand in Iraq is 4,000MW greater than utility supply, the difference made up by neighborhood entrepreneurs with diesel generators. The U.S. should insist that half of the $12 billion (World Bank) to $35 billion (Iraq Ministry of Electricity) of U.S., Japanese, and European funds estimated necessary to rebuild Iraq’s shattered electric utilities be budgeted for solar and wind generation. (GE, which just signed a $3 billion contract with the Ministry of Electricity won’t be ruffled a bit.)

Measures such as these will go a long way to transform a vague and distant worry into an urgent, local, political problem — and your stalwart refusal to take action until the nation is ready and the moment is ripe will be compared with the genius of another tall, thin Illinois politician.


Ken Ward



1 Illinois Sen. Barack Obama, Democratic presidential candidate statement: "I strongly agree with Vice President Gore that we cannot drill our way to energy independence, but must fast-track investments in renewable sources of energy like solar power, wind power and advanced biofuels, and those are the investments I will make as president."

Arizona Sen. John McCain, Republican presidential candidate, statement: "There may be some aspects of climate change that he and I are in disagreement (on)," but "if the vice president says it’s doable, I believe it’s doable."

2 A Less Well-Oiled War Machine, Sandra Upson, IEEE Online, October 2008