Van Jones: In 20 Years, ‘People Are Going To Be Asking This President Why He Didn’t Do Something On Climate’

President Obama’s legacy will be defined by a number of issues: the stimulus package; killing Osama bin Laden; his endless battles with Congress; his support for gay marriage.

But arguably the biggest issue he’ll be judged on — one that is still rarely mentioned in Washington policy circles — is climate change.

It is true that this President has done more than any other leader in American history to promote clean energy. But that will only be one piece of his legacy. The rest of his climate record will be marked by his decision to allow drilling in the rapidly melting Arctic ocean, his choice to approve or deny the Keystone XL pipeline, and his ability to once again lead on pricing carbon. These are all still very much up in the air.

Van Jones, the former White House “Green Jobs Czar” and a progressive moment builder, is warning the President that he needs to find the “courage” to stand up and deal with these issues in a climate context. In an interview with science writer Chris Mooney for Mother Jones Magazine, Jones says he believes that climate will be “the issue he’s judged on”:

Mother Jones: What would real climate leadership look like? You gave President Obama a “B” or “B-” on the environment in his first term, what would he have to do to earn an “A” in the second one?

Van Jones: An “A” would be a major energy and climate bill as a centerpiece of his legacy. He obviously has to deal with the economy and the budget issues that the Tea Party keeps trying to politicize. And there’s a question of immigration reform, which is critical as a major part of the progressive coalition. But, ten years from now, twenty years from now, the only thing people are going to be asking of this president is either, why he didn’t find the courage to do something on climate change, or they’re going to be asking how he found the courage. I think from the viewpoint of history, this is going to be the issue that he’s judged on. We’ve seen a lot of conversation about this fiscal cliff, which is an invented, manufactured crisis, but very little talk about the climate cliff, which is a real, unavoidable crisis.

So if we can have the president of the United States on TV every day talking about the manufactured fiscal cliff, then he can use all of those resources to put pressure on Congress to do something about the real climate cliff.

After his re-election last month, President Obama hinted that he might once again talk about climate change in his second term: “We want our children to live in an America that isn’t…threatened by the destructive power of a warming planet.”

However, in his first post-election press conference, the President backed away from acting on climate and attempted to separate the environment from the economy: “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.”

The White House likes to point to the stimulus package, EPA regulations, and other executive orders as evidence of the President’s work on climate — often without really talking about climate. While these actions do set us on a pathway toward emissions reductions, they are still not nearly close to what scientists say we need, and not quite bold enough to convince countries like China and India that the U.S. is leading internationally on climate.

In the last few weeks, we’ve seen a range of new research telling us that we are on the brink of catastrophic climate change — right now. In the next twenty years, everything we know will be influenced and transformed by climate. And when people look back, they won’t be nitpicking about which policies did more to incrementally reduce emissions.

Assuming that Obama stays mum on climate, they’ll be asking why the President of the United States didn’t use the opportunity to rally the country when the science demanded it.

29 Responses to Van Jones: In 20 Years, ‘People Are Going To Be Asking This President Why He Didn’t Do Something On Climate’

  1. Mike Roddy says:

    Jones is right, of course. Maybe the President watches too much TV. All of this “fiscal cliff” and gas prices crap on the evening news will end up just as forgotten as the celebrity updates.

    Mr. Obama needs to dig a little deeper inside himself. Many of us are losing faith that he is capable of it.

    And thanks to Van for speaking up. We need more like him.

  2. Mark E says:

    New depth of cynicism alert:

    Suppose the fiscal gap keeps DC folks awake at night. If they convince themselves the economic cost of lost ecosystem services is far less than the fiscal gap itself, a handy solution would be to kill off a large portion of future elderly with heat stress.

    “Voila!”, their faith might lead them to say, “No more fiscal gap, at half the price!”

    I’m not saying Obama is actually DOING this. Just saying future conspiracy theorists might say he did.

  3. Mark E says:

    Many thanks to whatever CP reader first posted the interview link about the fiscal gap.

  4. Tom says:

    Climate underlies ALL economic issues. Without the earth’s ecosystem giving us our riches – we will be poor to the point of extinction (at least civilization – certainly not 7 or 9 billion of us).

  5. NJP1 says:

    What’s Obama supposed to ‘do’?
    get changed in a phone booth (oops–none left) and blow on the atmosphere to cool it down like hot coffee?
    The President is locked into the same energy guzzling system as the rest of us.
    he knows something’s got to be done, but that would mean inconvenience for everybody, and nobody will put up with that. we all expect to keep warm in winter and cool in summer…that takes energy
    Carter was thrown out of office for even suggesting we might be heading for trouble.
    By 2016 the Repubs will be back promising $2 gas again, if Obama goes ahead with fuel-austerity gullible fools will believe it and vote in a GOP whacko candidate

  6. Nell says:

    What if Obama had a weekly town hall meeting, with guests such as Richard Alley, James Hansen and Bill McKibben.
    What if Obama scared the pants off us, and then comforted us with solutions.
    What if?

  7. Obama’s always been a little hard to read, but it’s clear that he’s not an environmental President — not first at least. His priorities are more I line with the old-fashioned liberal agenda of social equality. I don’t think anybody on his political team understands or gives a damn about the environment — Ploufe, Axlerod…do they even mention the environment unless specifically asked about it by the press?

    So I wouldn’t count on a sudden change of focus from the White House unless climate change gets so bad so fast that it leaves Pres. & Co. no choice. Keep the pressure up, but politically our best hope is probably to elect an environmental president and congress in 2016.

  8. rollin says:

    Politicians stay away from global warming solutions because of time factors and risk factors. Let’s say Obama convinced Congress to start on the path of climate change mitigation. Let’s also say that within a year or so another frankenstorm hits the New York-New Jersey area or some other heavily populated section. The fossil fuel companies would jump on this and grind him up politically. A lot of the populace who had changed their fuel-sucking ways would get dis-heartened or outright antagonistic as they saw their austerity getting bad results. The time delay for results and the possibility of further disasters are too long range and too high to run with politically. Since Obama is in his last term as president he could pursue it further but the party would be heavily damaged and the next president would be republican. The republicans would run amok on the environment and halt mitigations that were not in fossil industry’s favor. One step forward, two steps back.
    We cannot depend on political solutions. We must do this ourselves or concede the field. Once we are making a big difference, the politics will start to follow.

  9. fj says:

    Maybe more like 2 years.

  10. M Tucker says:

    The President should be roundly criticized for not talking about the seriousness of the problem but do you really think a bit of talking will move the most anti-science, conspiracy theory loving House ever in the history of the US? How will you force the House to do anything on climate? What sort leverage will get them to change? You cannot just appeal to their sense of decency because they do not have one. This is the “let ‘em die Republicans.” This is the pack of hoodlums that want to protect the wealthy and government subsidies for the fossil fuel fat cats. They do not give two shits about the average American or preventing further destruction due to AGW. They cannot be reasoned with so you need some sort of leverage exactly like the imbecilic fiscal emergency they imposed upon themselves. But when it comes to climate they do not even acknowledge that an emergency exists.

    We all know what Obama should be saying about the climate issue but, if you want to be constructive Van, you should also lay out exactly how he can get the anti-science, conspiracy theory believing Republicans to change their thinking.

  11. Mark E says:

    #1 Obama should talk
    #2 Obama should talk some more.
    #3 Go back to #1

    In the midst of all his talking, he should request an urgent report from the National Science Academy.

    Whether delayed action is a “false economy”, as claimed by IEA (see will be the basis of the report.

    Let the our own National Science Academy compare dollars now to dollars later, to help guide plans for the federal budget. They should be sure to include the value of ecosystem services we are going to lose opting for action later.

    While the report is being prepared, Obama should go back to #1 above.

  12. Ken Barrows says:

    In 20 years, if I and many of you are still alive, we’ll be more concerned about where our next meal is than President’s Obama cowardly lion impersonation.

  13. dick smith says:

    To paraphrase Guy McPherson. Anyone who thinks the environment is a subset of the economy instead of vice-versa, should try counting his money while holding his breath.

  14. Jon says:

    It causes me to lose respect for Climate Progress when you quote Obama saying “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.” as that were the sum total of what he said on the topic in the press conference, omitting to mention that the very next words out of his mouth were “If, on the other hand, we can shape an agenda that says we can create jobs, advance growth and make a serious dent in climate change and be an international leader, I think that’s something that the American people will support.”.

  15. Superman1 says:

    So, if you go to your Doctor with a life-threatening illness, and he says that he will do what he can consistent with what your insurance will pay, you would be happy? I would hope you find a Doctor who would say he’ll do whatever it takes to save your life, with no conditions.

    That’s what I would expect from a real leader of the American government. Our civilization is in real danger of going under by mid-century at our present rate of fossil fuel use. I would hope Obama would say that protecting the lives of our citizens and their progeny, which translates to all the citizens of the world and their progeny, would be his highest priority. The wishy-washy statement you quote does not encourage me.

  16. Superman1 says:

    Exactly. That’s why this ‘debate’ is all a game. Without the planet’s population being willing to live like the Pennsylvania Amish at best, and perhaps more like the indiginous Native Americans for the next three or four decades, there is a miniscule chance of ‘solving’ the climate change problem. What are the odds of that happening, voluntarily or involuntarily?

    Here’s a metaphor of what we face. One hundred people are sentenced to jail for twenty years. They are confined to one large room, with relatively close quarters, a low ceiling, and almost no ventilation. Ninety-eight of them are three pack a day smokers, and the other two are non-smokers. Five of the smokers are ‘deniers’, and two of those five own the cigarette concession.
    Ninety-three of the smokers recognize the dangers of smoking, but are too ‘hooked’ to quit. The two non-smokers recognize the dangers of smoking, and also recognize the dangers of inhaling second-hand smoke. The two non-smokers talk about the dangers of smoking, but no one changes their habits. The two non-smokers take a poll, where sixty smokers say they would like to quit, but none reduces their smoking by even one cigarette. The two non-smokers ask their elected leader to show strong leadership in reducing smoking; the leader replies he is powerless to act without popular support.

    After two years, three of the smokers have died from lung cancer. The ‘deniers’ say people have been smoking for thousands of years, and no one has died prematurely from smoking; they died when their time came. The ‘deniers’ say the three dead smokers died from ‘natural causes’. No matter what the two non-smokers try to change the environment, they run up against a stone wall. That’s where we are with man-made climate change today, and that’s why there is little hope of the problem being solved in the real world.

  17. Brooks Bridges says:

    One of the classic definitions of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.

    So, 10 years from now you can tell your grandchildren what you did in the war: “Well, I complained a lot about Obama”.

    Yes, I’m angry with him. Yes I am mystified by him.

    But what about some concrete ideas on how to make him wake up? You know, like join a mass demonstration in DC?

  18. Mark E says:

    Awesome! Best 1-sentence distillation of the essential problem I have ever heard!

  19. Superman1 says:

    What is it you want him to do? If one reads the reports of Kevin Anderson based on non-inclusion of positive feedbacks, and reads especially between the lines, one sees a message being delivered loud and clear. Mother Nature is telling us, to paraphrase Bush the Elder: “Read my lips; no more fossil fuels”. She is not saying: 1) no more fossil fuels, except to help transition to a renewables economy; 2) no more fossil fuels, except to assist in reforestation; 3) no more fossil fuels, except for life-threatening emergencies; 4) no more fossil fuels, except to prevent the world economy from going under. She is saying the atmosphere contains all the CO2 necessary to drive us from Dangerous climate conditions to ‘Extremely Dangerous’, in Anderson’s terminology. What can President Obama do to satisfy all these conditions?

    Now, a caveat. What Mother Nature is really saying is ‘no more net additions of CO2’ to the atmosphere. If we could generate some magical technology that might use one unit of CO2 to extract e.g. three units of CO2 from the atmosphere, this could be allowable. In fact, if we could replace fossil fuel with a magical fuel that removed more CO2 from the atmosphere than any greenhouse gases it might generate, and perhaps generated sulphates/aerosols as well, then we might have a chance, and President Obama could address a number of the above requirements as well. Absent that, his hands are tied.

  20. Superman1 says:

    What addiction has talk ever cured? Right, and it certainly won’t cure perhaps the strongest addiction of all, addiction to cheap fossil fuel.

  21. Bill Ferree says:

    A slightly older political figure could have been the first black President of the United States had he spoken up and stopped a war. Colin Powell is the tragic figure of the beginning of this century.
    It’s my hope Obama realizes he may have greater power and responsibility than any of his predecessors because of global warming. Let’s hope he ultimately decides to shoulder that burden, rather than accept a place in history no more significant than your favorite bar tender or barista or Rush Limbaugh or the Koch brothers.

  22. mulp says:

    This article indicates why humans are doomed.

    The best action to save the planet for the global warming that has been going off for the past century is Obama is letting the Keystone XL pipeline be built.

    Obama fighting to force voters to force Republicans to defy Grover Norquist and vote for a tax hike is totally irrelevant to the climate, because no carbon tax is required to cut carbon emissions, just not permit the Keystone XL or drilling in the arctic and the future is saved.

    Look, the anti-tax crowd is a thousand times more determined to see the future destroyed than the environmentalists are to save the future.

    If climate action is the way to fix the economy, then go to Washington and demand the green jobs programs from Republicans. Make it clear to Republicans that if they don’t vote for green jobs they will be defeated in 2014 because you will join the Republican Party to work against them in the primary by reminding Republicans that it was Republicans who created the EPA and Republicans that created the National Parks.

    Blaming Obama is just like admitting to being lazy. Obama is not the problem – Republicans are. Fix the Republicans.

  23. prokaryotes says:

    Obama also has to get real on the topic of “Clean Coal” and “Natural Gas”.

  24. DanB says:

    I feel Obama is a master strategist. He understands how to move the political upperclass with minimal effort.

    David Axelrod is finger in the wind guy. He’s the problem. Science gets in his way. Nature gets in his way. I’m ready to believe that principles get in his way. This is Obama’s Achilles Heel – someone who is all about winning but at zero about principles.

    How do we get rid of him and get someone in his place who can present a coherent and consistent vision of a clean and prosperous America? – Reborn by sake of virtue.

  25. Mark E says:

    Where o where o where’s Obama?
    Where o where o where’s Obama?
    Where o where o where’s Obama?
    Way down yonder in say-nothing land!

    Leadership vaccuum, yes sir! yes sir!
    Leadership vaccuum, yes sir! yes sir!
    Leadership vaccuum, yes sir! yes sir!
    Way down yonder in say-nothing land!

    Climate congress, he can start it,
    Climate congress, he can start it,
    Climate congress, he can start it,
    But not when he’s lost in say-nothing land!

    Without Obama it’s all for nothing,
    Without Obama it’s all for nothing,
    Without Obama it’s all for nothing,
    Votes count for nothing in say-nothing land!

    Leadership vaccuum, yes sir! yes sir!
    Leadership vaccuum, yes sir! yes sir!
    Leadership vaccuum, yes sir! yes sir!
    Way down yonder in say-nothing land!

  26. Ric Merritt says:

    Gimme a break.

    This comment advocates stopping FF burning this very minute. (I mean, read the actual words S1 wrote.)

    Those among us with shreds of sanity cannot help noticing that the result of this “policy” would be the prompt murder of billions and the immiseration of most of the remainder.

    Lets try to stick with the real world. The mixture of good, bad, and uncertainty is already hard enough without distraction from murderous fantasies that put Pol Pot to shame.

  27. Floryhawk says:

    @Superman1– That’s a fine metaphor. So, say you are one of the smokers in that jail. Would you just give up and not even consider trying to quit?– because that’s the question that has been haunting me for a while now.

  28. Superman1 says:

    “Lets try to stick with the real world.”

    The ‘real world’ is the following tradeoff: for every bit of fossil fuel used from here on out, we go further in to the temperature regime that Anderson calls ‘Extremely Dangerous’. He’s not playing semantic games; these words have meaning. First, the drastic increase in extreme events in this ‘Extremely Dangerous’ regime would create worldwide chaos and destruction. Second, there is much higher likelihood that the myriad positive feedbacks we have identified already will spiral out of control, and the planet will become uninhabitable in short order.

    That’s the real world, like it or not. Many lives are going to be ended prematurely either way. We don’t have a good choice, and to suggest otherwise is disingenuous to the extreme.

  29. Superman1 says:

    You’re asking a different question; the focus of the metaphor was on the two non-smokers. But, as your question states, suppose one of the 93 non-denier smokers decided to quit. What he should do depends on his purpose for quitting. If he is quitting for health purposes, but he really enjoys smoking, and he realizes that quitting in that heavy second-hand smoke environment won’t prolong his life that much, then, unless he and the two non-smokers can somehow convince the super-majority to stop smoking, it’s probably pointless to stop.

    That’s really the situation that most of those who contribute to this blog face. Their adopting an Amish-like lifestyle is pointless unless the super-super-majority (that seem not to care about lifting a finger to avoid the most serious consequences of climate change) come on board as well. Obviously, there have been many people who have taken hopeless pathways because of moral and ethical reasons, because it was the ‘right’ thing to do. But, from the larger scheme of things, it’s basically irrelevant. Unless the super-super-majority can be turned around, we’re toast.