I have a daughter almost as old as those who were senselessly killed at Sandy Hook Elementary school, so my heart goes out to all the victims.
She is also why I fight so hard for climate action. As Obama said in his powerful speech at the Sandy Hook interfaith prayer vigil:
With their very first cry, this most precious, vital part of ourselves — our child — is suddenly exposed to the world, to possible mishap or malice. And every parent knows there is nothing we will not do to shield our children from harm. And yet, we also know that with that child’s very first step, and each step after that, they are separating from us; that we won’t — that we can’t always be there for them. They’ll suffer sickness and setbacks and broken hearts and disappointments. And we learn that our most important job is to give them what they need to become self-reliant and capable and resilient, ready to face the world without fear.
And we know we can’t do this by ourselves…. we come to realize that we bear a responsibility for every child because we’re counting on everybody else to help look after ours; that we’re all parents; that they’re all our children.
This is our first task — caring for our children. It’s our first job. If we don’t get that right, we don’t get anything right. That’s how, as a society, we will be judged.
And by that measure, can we truly say, as a nation, that we are meeting our obligations? Can we honestly say that we’re doing enough to keep our children — all of them — safe from harm? Can we claim, as a nation, that we’re all together there, letting them know that they are loved, and teaching them to love in return?
Can we say that we’re truly doing enough to give all the children of this country the chance they deserve to live out their lives in happiness and with purpose?
I’ve been reflecting on this the last few days, and if we’re honest with ourselves, the answer is no. We’re not doing enough. And we will have to change.
Dave Roberts at Grist has already noted that many of Obama’s words could have been written in a speech about the moral necessity for climate action, in an eloquent post, “Newtown: Tragedy, empathy, and growing our circle of concern.” I share Roberts’ (and Obama’s) call for “a basic shift in moral perspective.”
The reason Obama’s words at Sandy Hook also speak to the moral urgency of climate action is, I think, because the president has been thinking a great deal about his legacy since winning re-election, thinking about his second-term agenda in terms of how it affects future generations.
The language he used at Sandy Hook clearly echoes a new interview in Time (done before the shooting) on his second term agenda:
My primary focus is going to continue to be on the economy, on immigration, on climate change and energy….
Well, it’s a cliché, but it’s obviously true that for any parent, as you watch your kids age, you are reminded that everything you do has to have their futures in mind. You fervently hope they’re going to outlive you; that the world will be better for them when you’re not around. You start thinking about their kids.
And so, on an issue like climate change, for example, I think for this country and the world to ask some very tough questions about what are we leaving behind, that weighs on you. And not to mention the fact I think that generation is much more environmentally aware than previous generations.
There is that sense of we’ve got to get this right, and at least give them a fighting chance. In the same way that as a parent you recognize that no matter what you do, your kids are going to have challenges — because that’s the human condition — but you don’t want them dealing with stuff that’s the result of you making bad choices. They’ll have enough bad choices that they make on their own that you don’t want them inheriting the consequences of bad choices that you make. We have to think about that as a society as a whole.
You could almost flip the two speeches.
Except that, in the wake of the umpteenth senseless gun tragedy, Obama used the bully pulpit to publicly commit himself to action no matter how tough it might seem:
“In the coming weeks, I will use whatever power this office holds to engage my fellow citizens … in an effort aimed at preventing more tragedies like this.”
He explicitly rejected the notion that “the politics are too hard.”
But for climate, no public speeches, no clarion call to action at all cost.
The warming-worsened monster storm Sandy has clearly moved public opinion, but, barring filibuster reform, we will need 60 Senators for serious action — and that means some Senate Republicans — not to mention support from House Republicans as long as they retain the majority, which could be for many years.
Let me be clear that there is no direct analogy between Sandy Hook and Sandy. They are utterly different tragedies. Guns obviously directly caused the former (yes, I know people kill people — with guns in this case) whereas the connection between carbon pollution and the latter’s devastation, while scientifically straightforward (see here and here), is much less obvious.
It does appear that Sandy Hook, combined with the endless series of recent mass shootings, has perhaps crossed a tipping point that allows public will to translate into policy. Unlike mass shootings, climate disasters are certain to get more destructive and more frequent until we take very aggressive action to cut carbon pollution.
So that raises the question, how bad do things have to get before Obama speaks out? These are similar questions to the ones I posed earlier this month, “What Are the Near-Term Climate Pearl Harbors? What Will Take Us from Procrastination To Action?”
As I wrote in that post, “The [climate] Pearl Harbors are here. The Churchills and FDRs aren’t.” Action to restrict the most lethal guns, assault weapons, can be contemplated now only because the president of the United States has used the bully pulpit to put the issue on the table, because he said he would use “whatever power this office holds” to prevent more tragedies like it.
Imagine if Obama had gone to the areas in New York and New Jersey devastated by Sandy and delivered stirring words about the moral urgency for climate action.
We all love our children deeply and would do anything to reduce serious risks to their well-being. The intense media and political focus on Sandy Hook is in large part because the victims were very young children. The intense focus on the national debt is in large part because of the burden it places on our children.
So why is there climate silence? Why is there so much callousness and willful ignorance when it comes to a purely preventable threat that will affect far more of our children in far harsher ways?