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When Will Obama Act on Catastrophic Climate Change?

Unless we act fairly soon in response to the timetable set by physics, there’s not much reason to act at all.

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In fact, he didn’t even appear to notice those phenomena, campaigning for a second term as if from an air-conditioned bubble, even as people in the crowds greeting him were  fainting en masse from the heat. Throughout campaign 2012, he kept declaring his love for an “all-of-the-above” energy policy, where apparently oil and natural gas were exactly as virtuous as sun and wind.

Only at the very end of the campaign, when Hurricane Sandy seemed to present a political opening, did he even hint at seizing it -- his people letting reporters know on background that climate change would now be one of his top three  priorities (or maybe, post-Newtown, top four) for a second term. That’s a start, I suppose, but it’s a long way from telling the car companies they better retool to start churning out wind turbines. 

And anyway, he  took it back at the first opportunity. At his post-election press conference, he announced that climate change was “real,” thus marking his agreement with, say, President George H.W. Bush in 1988. In deference to “future generations,” he also agreed that we should “do more.” But addressing climate change, he added, would involve “tough political choices.” Indeed, too tough, it seems, for here were his key lines:

“I think the American people right now have been so focused, and will continue to be focused on our economy and jobs and growth, that if the message is somehow we’re going to ignore jobs and growth simply to address climate change, I don’t think anybody is going to go for that. I won’t go for that.”

It’s as if World War II British Prime Minister Winston Churchill had declared, “I have nothing to offer except blood, toil, tears, and sweat. And God knows that polls badly, so just forget about it.”

The president must be pressed to do all he can -- and more.  That’s why thousands of us will  descend on Washington D.C. on President’s Day weekend, in what will be the largest environmental demonstration in years. But there’s another possibility we need to consider: that perhaps he’s simply not up to this task, and that we’re going to have to do it for him, as best we can.

If he won’t take on the fossil fuel industry, we will. That’s why on 192 campuses nationwide  active divestment movements are now doing their best to highlight the fact that the fossil fuel industry threatens their futures.

If he won’t use our position as a superpower to drive international climate-change negotiations out of their rut, we’ll try.  That’s why young people from 190 nations are  gathering in Istanbul in June in an effort to shame the U.N. into action. If he won’t listen to scientists -- like the 20 top climatologists who  told him that the Keystone pipeline was a mistake -- then top scientists are increasingly clear that they’ll need to get  arrested to make their point.

Those of us in the growing grassroots climate movement are going as fast and hard as we know how (though not, I fear, as fast as physics demands). Maybe if we go fast enough even this all-too-patient president will get caught up in the draft. But we’re not waiting for him. We can’t.

Bill McKibben is Schumann Distinguished Scholar at Middlebury College, founder of the global climate campaign  350.org, a  TomDispatch regular, and the author, most recently, of  Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet.

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