The Day the Earth Stood Still — and the Challenge for Obama

I’d love to hear your thoughts on this day.

The excitement here in D.C. is palpable. We have friends in town who brought their five-year-old and are walking down to the national Mall. My wife got an invitation to watch the whole thing from an office that overlooks the Capitol.

I’m an indoor type [Duh!] — especially on a cold day with a wind chill that could only warm the hearts of anti-scientific global warming deniers. And someone needs to stay home with my 21-month-old daughter and blog.

She is so excited. She keeps saying “Where is Barack Obama?” and “Is Joe Biden here?” [Note: If you ask her who ran against Barack Obama, she’ll answer “Grumpy old man.” Go figure!]

So what is the great challenge for Obama?

Global warming, obviously, but what does he need to do?

Yes, he needs to pass a major climate bill and accelerate the deployment of cleantech. But those are really secondary challenges.

No, the single most important thing he needs to do is to change the political equation in this country.

Humanity must stabilize atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide at 450 ppm or lower. We must. The risks of failing to do so are simply too grave (see “Hadley Center: Catastrophic 5-7°C warming by 2100 on current emissions path“).

The notion that we can possibly stabilize at 550 ppm or 650 ppm is now I think debunked in the scientific literature because of the growing evidence that those CO2 levels will take us through tipping points in the global carbon cycle that will result in amplifying feedbacks that take us to 800 to 1000 ppm or higher (see Study: Water-vapor feedback is “strong and positive,” so we face “warming of several degrees Celsius“). In fact, many leading climate scientists think 450 ppm — if sustained for an extended period of time — is enough to take us beyond safe thresholds (see “Stabilize at 350 ppm or risk ice-free planet, warn NASA, Yale, Sheffield, Versailles, Boston et al“).

But stabilizing at 450 ppm (let alone below that) is simply not politically possible today (see “Part 6: What the Boxer-Lieberman-Warner bill debate tells us” and “Part 7: The harsh lessons of the financial bailout“). The recent USCAP proposal certainly makes that clear (see “NRDC and EDF endorse the weak, coal-friendly, rip-offset-heavy USCAP climate plan” and NRDC’s reply).

Yet by the end of Obama’s second term, stabilizing at 450 ppm must be politically possible or else it will be all but unattainable. [If Obama is a one-term President, that almost certainly means he has failed and been replaced by a Republican, who almost equally certainly will not aggressively pursue the needed climate action (see “The Deniers are winning, but only with the GOP” and my series on the conservative and stagnation movement — The conservative stagnation, Part 12: Cap & trade bill will return GOP to power “in 2010″³)].

And that means that not only must Obama change US climate politics, he must bring China along with him (see “Should Obama push a climate bill in 2009 or 2010? Part I, Does a serious bill need action from China?“).

The challenge for Obama and his team is to make the science tangible and the moral necessity self-evident. I suspect he will need some “help” over the next 8 years from the increasingly painful reality of human-caused global warming itself (see “What are the near-term climate Pearl Harbors?” And indeed temperatures are poised to soar — if not in the very short term, then certainly over the next several yeas (see NASA: “Likely that a new global temperature record will be set within the next 1-2 years”).

How Obama can meet this challenge will be the subject of later posts, but it obviously starts with his inaugural address, whose theme will be the central one for meeting all of the challenges that face our nation today — “responsibility.”

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15 Responses to The Day the Earth Stood Still — and the Challenge for Obama

  1. Greg N says:

    Enjoy the day!

  2. John McCormick says:

    Joe, whether parents or not parents, America’s adult generation shares a common and instinctive obligation to our children and next generations to follow. Their survival and means to survive are our collective responsibilities. President Obama is the motive force to begin shaping the direction towards those ends.

    We believers in the looming climate change catastrophy have been, by and large, observers of the American political theater of the debate and may soon and must become relegated and regulated into a life-long mitigation program.

    President Obama has inherited some frightening other immediate and short-term domestic and global problems that could become the baseline of obstruction for US and global action on mitigation. India-Pakistan-Afganistan; spiraling unemployment and revenue loss; China reacting to domestic unrest by throwing its wealth into its own social safety net; US borrowing dificulties requiring higher interst rates; creeping inflation as Treasury prints more dollars. All that and the Waxman-Boxer pressure on the President to support an 80% by 2050 mitigation bill….now

    I believe the 111th Congress MUST take the lead from the President on climat legislation and see the urgency of immediate problem-solving as the necessary down-payment for putting American on a track where it can begin to spend huge federal dollars to rebuild and upgrade the national grid (even to the point of nationalizing the grid if that is what it will take to assure renewable power sources are connected to load centers).

    The President has the responsibility to save our sinking economy and he might have to make difficult and vexing decisions about the priorities upon which he must focus.

    President Obama has that sense of purpose and inner confidence we need and must respect.

    Our failing to support his agenda, in his first term, will jeopardise his re-election effort (I remember how the left abandoned President Carter) and a second term where he and we can finally pull it together along with China and India.

    Have fun with your daughter today, Joe. She and all our children are what it is all about.

    John McCormick

  3. JeandeBegles says:

    The minimal target is to cut by 2 the earth emissions of CO2 by 2050 at the latest. This means that the rich countries must show the example (China and India will join us later), because for the rich countries the cut must be far bigger: by 6 to 8 for USA (because of your coal dependance) by 4 to 6 for UE countries.
    Such cuts mean a complete change of society; the industry will have to deliver low carbon products and services, with renewable energy and high energy efficiency, but all this is clearly not enough.
    We, each individual, will have to change our lifestyle to cut our CO2 emissions by flying less, driving less, heating less, eating less red meat, ..
    A financial signal is mandatory to drive such a huge move (but education and citizenship are also important), that is the purpose of the carbon tax, with redistribution on an equal basis per people (as proposed by James Hansen) for helping the low income people to pay this needed tax.
    Tax is an ugly word for politicians, but this tough medecine is needed to give us a chance to avoid the worst effects of global warming.

  4. paulm says:

    Just great. Unbelievable. Not quite MLK speech, but its the actions that will count.

    PS Did he completely recite the oath? If he didn’t, does that mean technically he is not sworn in?

  5. Dean says:

    Reports on TV say that the change of power occurs at noon, irregardless of not finishing the oath (or that Roberts screwed it up).

  6. Greg N says:

    He said all that I want to hear.

    One day I hope to be writing “He did all that I wanted done.”

  7. Linda S says:

    The world changed at 12:00 EST today. How appropriate that the moment was marked, not with words, but with soaring strains of music.

    I can think of no one better suited to the job ahead. Among Obama’s many strengths is the ability to inspire — his reminder of what we owe to our ancestors was classic. Standing on those shoulders, how can we now ignore our responsibility to future generations?

  8. Maarten says:

    Today, I feel like almost 20 years ago, when the Iron Curtain lifted in Europe; a big looming shadow dissipated. Now we have a chance to do the work that needs to be done. Failure is not an option. Big smiles.

  9. Maartan nailed it… exactly like when the Berlin Wall fell.

    Do you see the joy on the face of Yo-Yo Ma as he played? That moment touched me to my very soul!

    He will be a great president. Now it’s up to us to move the yard sticks for him, so that more is possible.

  10. paulm says:

    That was a beautiful piece, absolutely beautiful.

  11. Gary Herstein says:

    paulm Says:

    PS Did he completely recite the oath? If he didn’t, does that mean technically he is not sworn in?

    The XXth ammendment (section 1) makes it clear that Obama was President as of 12:00 noon January 20th. The oath is largely symbolic; there’s nothing that says it has to be administered publicly or by the Chief Justice. If Obama swore the oath in his bathroom this morning prior to getting dressed, that would be altogether sufficient. And I rather imagine he spent some time this AM in front of the mirror, reciting that oath — God knows, I would. (Article II, section 1, the paragraph immediately preceding section 2 is where the text of the oath is given. Nothing is said about where or how that oath is to be taken, however.)

    Finally, this is unlikely the first time anyone’s stumbled a bit, even if it is the first time we’ve so carefully recorded it.

    (It is also ironic, at least, that the Shrub appointed Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court hosed up the words. — “Words, Shmerds; just a bunch of text. Why should I read the Constitution when I’m a Chief Justice … ?”)

  12. Gary Herstein says:

    Oh, and the “So help me God” part is nowhere to be found in the Constitution. George Washington ad lib’d that upon his inauguration. But as the “Big C” explicitly forbids the use of any religious test or oath for federal officers to take office, this is only something folks add on their own.

  13. Brendan says:

    In your blog, you have written how 450 ppm is not politically possible today. Could you write a post on if it’s politically possible tomorrow? If your conclusion is no, could you comment on what it would take?


    [JR: I am going to try to lay out what Obama needs to do to make it possible. The China post was Part 1 of that series.]

  14. Roger says:

    A politician I know called Tuesday’s feeling “A 9/11 feeling, but in a good sense.”

    It was wonderful to hear Barack’s reference to climate disruption. He also spoke of our problems, saying that “they are real, and they are serious.”
    Now, he needs to say the latter, on TV, specifically about climate disruption
    –so that the huge gap between what the scientists know, and what the general public knows, about climate disruption can begin to be filled.

    Once the gap is closed, Jim Hansen’s tax proposals will be palatable to all.

  15. paulm says:

    BTW….this was not the first time either!

    Obama is sworn in for second time

    The decision to repeat the oath was taken out of an abundance of caution, an official said.

    But Mr Obama joked: “We decided it was so much fun….” before adding: “We’re going to do it very slowly.”