Why the Oil Spill May Be the Greatest Test of Obama's Presidency

Can the president seize this moment to move boldly on the biggest question facing the world: our endless addiction to fossil fuel.

The river of Gulf oil welling up from BP's hole in the bottom of the sea will be the great test of the Obama presidency--but not for the reasons people are starting to suggest.

For one thing, it's not his fault, even if he did agree a month ago to lift the moratorium on offshore drilling. That bad judgment hasn't had time to do any damage yet.

And even if the administration was slow off the mark in responding, they're clearly pouring every asset they've got into the fight to save the coastline of Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama. That fight will be played out over many months, and in the end there may be simply nothing anyone can do to turn the tide.

So the real test will simply be this: can the president seize this moment to move boldly on the biggest question facing the world: our endless addiction to fossil fuel. Not foreign fossil fuel, but fossil fuel period.

Between last month's coal-mine disaster and this month's ongoing oil catastrophe, he's got the ultimate in teachable moments. If he wanted to launch a real offensive, here's how it would look: a series of urgent speeches in which he explained that the damage visible on the beaches of the Gulf is only the most dramatic of the problems we face from fossil fuel. Just as bad is what happens when oil makes it safely out of the drilling platform or coal out of the mine: its combustion is producing the carbon dioxide now raising the temperature of the earth. And not just the temperature--that same flow of carbon dioxide is now quickly acidifying the planet's oceans. If you're worried about oysters in the Gulf, you should be worried about oysters in general, not to mention coral reefs, plankton, and pretty much the rest of the marine food chain. In every cubic meter of the planet's vast seas.

Those speeches would need to come with a plan--a plan far bolder than the watered down piece of legislation due to be released sometime in the near future by Senator Kerry, apparently with the White House's blessing. That bill (which, ironically, was originally going to dramatically increase offshore drilling) offers no compelling vision of the world beyond fossil fuel, and pays scant attention to the warnings scientists have given in recent years. A real plan would set a truly stiff price on carbon so that we would change our habits; that would sting, as it must. A real plan would also rebate the money raised by those fees to consumers, so the sting would be economically bearable. There's an embryonic, though also too-weak, version of this plan offered by the bipartisan duo of Washington's Maria Cantwell and Maine's Susan Collins--an engaged president could use it as the starting point for a crusade.

My guess is he won't, because it would mean confronting the electric utilities and big oil. Instead of letting them write the plan, he'd have to dictate the terms. And he doesn't need to do it politically--because he followed such an anti-environmental administration, the small gestures he's made so far on green issues (and his inspired cabinet picks) are enough to preserve his ecological credentials. But make no mistake--nothing he's done so far represents a real shift in our use of fossil fuel. Better than his predecessors? Sure. But I can win a footrace with my grandma and it doesn't make me speedy.

So we're going to find out if Obama really wants to take on the most crucial complex of issues the world faces. This is his moment, and it's the only possible silver lining to that very black cloud spreading out from the Deepwater drillhole.

Bill McKibben, a scholar in residence at Middlebury College, is the author of the new book Eaarth and founder of the climate campaign 350.org.
Sign Up!
Get AlterNet's Daily Newsletter in Your Inbox
+ sign up for additional lists
Select additional lists by selecting the checkboxes below before clicking Subscribe:
Election 2018