President Obama’s call to action on energy and climate: “Each day brings further evidence that the ways we use energy strengthen our adversaries and threaten our planet.”

Barack Obama

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 poweful 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 waming:

… 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 probaby curse our names (see “Hadley Center: Catastrophic 5-7°C warming by 2100 on current emissions path“).

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.

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19 Responses to President Obama’s call to action on energy and climate: “Each day brings further evidence that the ways we use energy strengthen our adversaries and threaten our planet.”

  1. paulm says:

    Here is the whole address….

    Heres an interesting part…

    “With old friends and former foes, we will work tirelessly to lessen the nuclear threat, and roll back the specter of a warming planet. We will not apologise for our way of life, nor will we waver in its defence,…

    This could be seen as dangerous talk depending on how you define the US way of life!

  2. Top billing was given to “the way we use energy.”

    So is it a “big plan” to just shift around the form of energy and still use almost as much to push cars around?

    Maybe a “big plan” might be to throw in some new concepts instead of just warming over the obvious ones.

    And of course, the topic of cars seems to come up:

    We could seriously insist that cars provide fast, safe, and comfortable service and truly draw only a small amount of energy, and I refer to the summation of all forms. Even if solar power is the source, by reducing the demand to just a small amount of energy we could bring that demand to a level where modest solar systems could suffice.

    A serious possibility has been developed to a point that demonstrates the possibilities, that project being the Aptera (see A big plan would be to bring cars such as these to a popular stage. This could go about a fourth or a third of the way toward a 350 ppm CO2 goal.

    At this point we might ease into a more radical automobile which would provide some advantages over the Aptera, that being the Miastrada (click my name above). This is my plan for how things should be done, though it is still just a concept.

    Either car could be fitted with an engine-generator at very little extra cost to operate as a household level cogeneration system to produce electricity from natural gas using about half to a third as much of that fuel as presently used by large power plants. This could be an option that competes favorably with the cost of coal sourced electricity.

    Both the efficient car plan and the household cogeneration plan would fit on the McKinsey chart on the left side where the cost of implementation would be covered by the financial gains of that measure.

    Why not actually think big?

    [JR: I’m gonna leave this comment up but I think it is wildly inappropriate, inaccurate, and in any case misses the point entirely.]

  3. paulm says:

    This is big…

    ‘One million jobs in wind power’ by 2010

    He said it had been “gobsmacking” to see the new schemes being developed in China.

    One location he had visited was putting in place up to 5GW of new capacity – the combined wind-generation capacity of France and the UK combined. It was fair to say, he said, that “Europe’s domination of wind is over”.
    And while Eon had been putting up one new turbine every 10 hours on its own, he warned that the world needed one every 25 minutes if it were to reach the targets set out for it.

    Hopefully the race is on between US and China.

  4. David B. Benson says:

    Adversaries? I what way is the consumption of fossil fuel strengthening our adversaries?

    Dangerous talk, I say. :-(

  5. I hear that the White House web site changed over precisely at noon – despite the oath of office happening a few minutes after that time. A tip of the hat to technology

    At least the goals are stated clearly.
    But Clean Coal should be in the department of delusional magic wishes.

  6. J4zonian says:

    Yes, his rhetoric here and before makes me think we won’t be burdened with this dilemma, it, but it’s just possible that if we move fast enough and completely enough to conservation and renewables that the worst–and most obvious–effects of climate change will be avoided. That would be fantastic beyond words…..and yet… might give deniers just enough room to continue to deny, at least in the view of our woefully miseducated public. Unless we address the real issues deniers have–the issues behind the issues they talk about (or even know about themselves) some will continue to deny, and others will continue to believe those denials.

    We must keep searching for a way out of this monster-inhabited box canyon, but it seems likely we will not get anything approaching consensus on energy directions even after clearly GHG-related disasters start–the flooding of Bangladesh and the Netherlands, for example, and hurricanes interfering with the final fishing-to-exhaustion of the Georges Banks.

  7. Joe,

    Thanks for not deleting my last.

    Clearly there is a need for more thorough discussion with quantitative support.

  8. MikeB says:

    My take: Obama understands the risk of climate change extremely well, and has had plenty of conversations with people like Al Gore about how to handle the issue. He’s picked the best science people around to work on solutions, and we’ve all shouted with joy at his scientific appointments.

    But Obama knows that he’s got to shift public opinion, and that’s a job for a politician, not a scientist. He keeps mentioning global warming in his speeches, not for us, but for the uninformed public at large. The country as a whole, even the rest of the world, will keep hearing the message get stronger and stronger, and will eventually be ready for serious action.

    Joe, you keep hitting an important point in your blogging: that doing what’s scientifically needed may be politically impossible. But a real master politician can change people’s perception of what’s impossible and what’s possible. I have a sneaking suspicion that we’re seeing such a shift in action.

    Obama’s speeches are setting the stage where serious action on climate is assumed, not debated, and it’s the scope of the action that gets talked about. Eventually, the debate won’t even be about scope, but about speed. At that point, the political battle will be over, and the scientists can provide the guidance.

  9. J4zonian says:

    “In what way is the consumption of fossil fuel strengthening our adversaries?”


    A standard strategy of war is to deny your adversary whatever he/she/it needs to wage war. When you expand the scope of ‘adversary’ and ‘war’ to include other countries or groups with which we are struggling to dominate the world or some part of it–geographic, religious, cultural-philosophical, emotional, or other, then you expand the definition of ‘waging war’ to a metaphor including every part of making a living, as well as making a killing. If we go for renewables and China continues on its present course of coal construction, I imagine we’ll have some serious disagreements. Completely solvable, of course–all we have to do is subsidize the transition for countries who can’t (or even won’t) do it alone. But how likely is that?

    As long as we depend on foreign oil, and have rivals–in war or whatever–they can screw with us by interfering with the flow of it. As long as we know that, we will mold our ambitions and actions to avoid conflict with anyone who can mess with the flow. Not a bad thing with our current ambitions and actions, but still, wouldn’t it be better to not have to depend on the goodwill of others for our food, heat and defense? Especially considering all othe other benefits homegrown soft energy accrues?

    China knows this too, (especially with Sun Tzu and Wei Chi to teach the lesson) and it will be a big stick we can hold over them if their own deniers keep power longer than ours. Or vice versa.

    Further: the fall of Rome was hastened, even caused, by poor nutrition (far-off farms run by the (slave) equivalent of corporate agriculture growing commodities rather than food for people) and even more, lead poisoning from plumbing causing learning disabilities, aggression, etc. Their, and our, dependence on mercenaries and technology and our inability to compete in science, eg, has many causes. But two biggies are our body burden of toxic chemicals, many fossil fuel-derived, and our poor nutrition that is inextricably bound up with the fact that using our current ag system is essentially eating oil, coal and gas.

  10. David B. Benson says:

    J4zonian — AFAIK, the only adversaries of the U.S. are Al Q and the Taliban.

    I’m certainly in favor of stopping fossil fuel consumption, but I do object to overblown, incorrect rhetoric.

  11. Steve Bloom says:

    OT: Joe, here’s a second try of that Carlin link from the other thread.

    [JR: Wow, that guy is very confused, which I suppose is not unusual given the Administration he worked for.]

  12. Steve Bloom says:

    Joe, did you mean that Carlin was a Bush appointee and thus gone (or about to be)? My concern was that he’s civil service and perhaps reflective of a larger problem at EPA.

  13. Danny Bloom says:

    Paulm is right on:


    “With old friends and former foes, we will work tirelessly to lessen the nuclear threat, and roll back the specter of a warming planet. We will not apologise for our way of life, nor will we waver in its defence,…”

    But President Obama, you are wrong here. WE MUST APOLOGIZE FOR OUR WAY OF LIFE AND WE MUST TAKE STEP SOON TO CHANGE OUR POSH WAY OF LIFE…….and you, dear Barack, must stop calling out to some non-existant GOD, as in your address pointing to Scriptures, “do away with childish things”….Barack, your religious crap is a childish thing….and stupid Rick Warren using his time on stage to WITNESS for a non-existant Jewsus Christ, when does this shite stop? There is no God, Barack, you know that, and there is no Jesus. And yes, we must never forget the specter of global warming, point well made. But get rid of your scriptural world view and get rid of pastor rick, he is a menace.

    other than that, right on, Barack….you da man….go go go

    and see my GRADUATION SPEECH TO THE CLASS OF 2099 here:

  14. Emil Möller says:

    Obama is aiming at making large audiences willing to follow his WWII industry turnaround.

    That makes references to commonly held strong beliefs expedient.

    So, judge the man by his deeds and intentions. Until there’s time for judging (if ever), give his take the benefit of the doubt and be a part of the solution by chipping in to our best ability.

  15. J4zonian says:

    “the only adversaries of the U.S. are Al Q and the Taliban.”

    Really? North Korea? Iran? most of Iraq? Cuba? etc etc. Not to mention a tenuous relationship with China and India based on ignored facts and differences, facing upheaval and conflict sparked by any number of issues, the most important of which will soon be an “after you my dear Alphonse” approach to the necessary renewables transition: an ‘our CO2’ vs ‘your CO2’ argument. “Adversarial” doesn’t mean shooting at each other.

    And I’m unclear which prose (or even whose) was overblown or incorrect. Please clarify for me.

  16. David B. Benson says:

    J4zonian —

    adversary: 1. An opponent; an enemy.


    None of the countries you mention are either and I have acquantances in/from many of them; don’t match the definition. Well, I suppose North Korea does in the strict sence of international law; technically there is still an on-going ‘police action’.

    I object to Obama’s speechwriters including such an incendiary term. You are doing fine except for not checking defintions.

  17. Jim O'Rourke says:

    Obviously it was a great day and a great speech. Still, I was a little disappointed that Barak didn’t frame conversion to the Clean Energy Economy as a mission the way JFK did the mission to the moon. The American People need a mission, the world needs us to make this happen -everything else depends on our success. Maybe he could have just spoke Van Jones’ four words: Clean Energy Jobs Bill. Don’t mean to be a hog though – Go Barak! What a 180, Joe Cool is in and the Class Clown and Evil Dick are gone!

  18. I was somewhat taken aback having been sternly rebuked, but after some consideration, I say, “Huh?” And here attempt to clarify.

    I paste from Jan 20 2:21pm:
    [JR: I’m gonna leave this comment up but I think it is wildly inappropriate, inaccurate, and in any case misses the point entirely.]

    “wildly inappropriate” : Well, ok, there is a potential, future, maybe, probably not and so far several years of unpaid work, element of self promotion in my attempts to advance my approach to solving global warming. I consciously decided that I had to be a little bold here since the importance of the subject forces me out of hesitation into some degree of aggression in order to get the ideas out.

    “inaccurate” : Yes, there are some rough approximations in my numbers, but surely it is obvious from EPA publications that reducing the CO2 associated with personal transportation by 80% could have a very strong impact. (Travel fast but use a third the energy used by a Prius, or a sixth that of typical cars.) Where are the questions about how this could come about?

    “misses the point entirely” : This one baffles me completely. Are we using the same language? I actually address exact quotes from the speech so as to be clear.

    “The way we use energy” is a phrase that shows understanding at the core of the problem, without committing to any particular answers. I think that is very promising, and would hope to see discussion of the “big plans”.

    David Benson makes an important point about labeling others as adversaries. This breath of foul air from past foreign policies is not the kind of change I was hoping for, but maybe this is just a poor choice of words.

    As to that Carlin link (courtesy Steve Bloom ), this is a paper published by the US EPA. I have not the background to know if dusting up the air will help; it seems pathological. But when I got to the part where he suggested we could control the temperature of the ocean by controlling sea level I launched into comic images of ways to build a lid over the oceans.

    [Jim: This was NOT a policy speech. That’s what made it incredible. You wrote: “Maybe a ‘big plan’ might be to throw in some new concepts instead of just warming over the obvious ones.” That struck me as quite an inappropriate criticism given the nature of the speech.]

  19. Joe: I thought Pres. Obama’s inaugural speech was amazing in that, in many ways, he skipped the usual opportuninty for rhetoric and moved right into a working mode, where he set the stage for serious planning. So to me, it sounded like a policy speech.

    My reference to “big plan” was not intended to be a criticism in any way at all, rather it was an attempt to pick up the idea and move on it. My words clearly failed to carry my intended meaning.

    In the face of misunderstandings like this I fall back on, “I know you think you understand what you thought I said, but what you don’t understand is that what I said is not what I meant.”