Obama’s ‘We Can’t Wait’ Moment On Climate Disaster

By Bill Becker

Barack Obama is very likely the last American president who can keep us from plunging helplessly off the climate cliff. Judging by his Inaugural and State of the Union speeches, he gets that.

It has been a long time coming.

Lyndon Johnson was the first president on record to be warned that unless our energy policies changed, climate change would become apparent, and perhaps irreversible, by the turn of the century. In 1965, Johnson’s panel of science advisors told him:

By the year 2000 there will be about 25 percent more CO2 in the atmosphere than at present. This will modify the heat balance of the atmosphere to such an extent that marked changes in climate, not controllable through local or even national efforts, could occur.

Now, 48 years and eight presidents later, climate disruption is accelerating more quickly than most scientists predicted. U.S. energy policy is still dominated by denial, by the political influence of fossil energy industries, and by Congress’s negligent disregard for climate science. The growing consensus now is that the world is locked in to global temperature increases well above the 2 degrees Centigrade that scientists say would give us an even chance of avoiding the worst impacts of global warming.

In 2009, Rajendra Pachauri, head of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), warned that global greenhouse gas emissions must begin to decline by 2015 if we are to keep climate disruption from spinning beyond control.

“It is not enough to set any aspirational goal for 2050,” he said. “It is critically important that we bring about a commitment to reduce emissions effectively by 2020.”

That threshold year — 2015 — is happening on Obama’s watch.

President Obama can’t reverse the world’s race toward the climate cliff single-handedly, of course. It would be both unrealistic and unfair to expect him to become the world’s environmental superhero.

But he has reignited hopes that the United States, the source of most of the greenhouse gases in the atmosphere today, and still the world’s second-largest source of those emissions, will make the effort. American leadership has been a missing catalyst for a serious global climate commitment.

In his State of the Union address, Obama said that if Congress doesn’t act, he will. The President‘s powers are not insignificant. But most of the actions Obama can take unilaterally are perishable. Executive orders and presidential proclamations can be undone by the next President or by Congress.

That’s why America’s diverse “stakeholders” in a more stable climate — from farmers to homebuilders, from coastal communities to the evolving dustbowl in the heartland, and from sports fishermen to the workers who assemble wind turbines and solar panels — must have Obama’s back.

Obama has said he’ll do his job. Ours is to create such strong grassroots political support for climate action that no future President would dare undo what we hope Obama will accomplish.

— William Becker is executive director of the Presidential Climate Action Project. The information, opinions and unattributed quotations in this blog are derived from “The Boundaries of Executive Authority”, a two-volume analysis of presidential powers by the Center for Energy and Environmental Security at the University of Colorado School of Law. See its analysis here and here.

17 Responses to Obama’s ‘We Can’t Wait’ Moment On Climate Disaster

  1. Millicent says:

    This is a very rare moment – a moment when I can see some slight chance that effective action might – just might – be taken.

    And, sad to say, I know there are people out there who will do all that they can to extinguish that hope.

  2. Mark E says:

    “Obama has said he’ll do his job. Ours is to create such strong grassroots political support for climate action that no future President would dare undo what we hope Obama will accomplish.”

    AMEN! We all have our work to do, and hanging out online does not count.

  3. M Tucker says:

    One polluting nation pledging to reduce emissions in an as yet undetermined fashion will not “…keep us from plunging helplessly off the climate cliff.” It will provide solace to some. It will offer optimism to some. Until CO2 concentrations stop relentlessly rising year after year the cliff gets closer. Our disrupted climate will not magically go away. We have a lot more disruption to endure and we have a very long way to go before things change. One Presidents vague promises of taking unspecified action at some unspecified future time is nothing more than words. We have heard promising words before from this President and, after all, he did speak of continuing with his “all of the above” energy policy and he promised to develop fossil fuels on public lands.

  4. Endofmore says:

    we will develop a pollution free automobile within the next six yeara. Richard Nixon 1969

    We will develop a viable pollution free fuel (corn, switchgrass etc) within the next 5 years GW Bush 2007

    We will drive new technology to shift our cars and trucks off oil for good. Barack Obama 2013

    I wish him well

  5. Alteredstory says:

    Given the amount of time a transition would take even with a full-on effort, I’d say that president was Clinton.

    We need to work on this as hard as we can, as fast as we can, but now the work has to include mitigation AND a concerted effort to adapt our civilization to cope with rapidly rising temperatures, worsening weather, and encroaching seas.

    We waited too long, and now we have double the work.

  6. “That threshold year — 2015 — is happening on Obama’s watch.”

    So true.

    So how are we going to help this administration get past the “all of the above” energy policy madness?

    Yes, Obama has stepped up with the courage to claim a big chunk of climate leadership. That’s awesome, about time, and a great help to the fully climate-conscious.

    But there is a lot of stuff in that SOTU speech that is disastrously climate negative.

    Fossil fuel exploration has to be wound down – not celebrated, accelerated!

  7. rollin says:

    Yipppeee! Finally he takes a stance, now we can all help and hope there is follow-through. We all need to do our part in reduction and transistion, as well as produce political/industrial incentive to bring fossil fuel burning to a halt and end destructive ag practices.
    This could be a first step.
    Next step, healing the ecosystem.

  8. Ken Barrows says:

    Backs are against the wall. Tough decisions need to be made. Yet people want to hang on any positive word that President Obama says. He thinks he has to pursue “all of the above.” Tell him he doesn’t. Of course, if he changes his view, it may cost him politcially. At this point, though, so what? If politics won’t allow effective action, what can you do?

  9. Tami Kennedy says:

    Oh Obama said the “c” word… Snore! Open public lands and increase drilling rights. Promise to produce more oil and natural gas.

  10. Larry Gilman says:

    Oh come on — Obama has talked so well on this subject since before his first inauguration (though he’s hardly mentioned it in the 4 years since then, a silence that cannot be blamed on intransigent Republicans), why do we always have to pretend that his latest tiny squirt of fine rhetoric heralds a brave new world of climate action? Do we really have to wave our little flags wildly in the crowd just because the Chief mentioned “climate change” again? Where’s the beef? Mileage standards?—fiddling as Rome burns. Nix Keystone?—maybe he will and maybe he won’t, but not building one pipeline is not exactly a comprehensive climate policy. Push for expanded fracking, offshore drilling, coal exports, and nuclear subsidies? —next-day delivery.

    Too little, too late, and an utterly self-defeating, incoherent, and unfundable “all of the above” approach — all delivered with undeniable charm, conviction, and eloquence. If this is “leadership,” we’re better off without leaders.

    I hope Amory Lovins is right, and that irresistible market magic is going to sweep fossil fuels from the face of the globe (more or less) in a decade or two, but I doubt it. Markets can be stupid and suicidal, as well as agile and innovative.

  11. Jon Davies says:

    So how long is Obama going to give congress to act before stepping in? 3 years? He should give them til June.

  12. Merrelyn Emery says:

    Surely it can be used for organizing and giving support? I agree more is required but blogs like this serve some useful functions, ME

  13. Merrelyn Emery says:

    Right on Bill. Now he has made his intentions clear, it is time to put away the cynicism and support him wholeheartedly, ME

  14. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    It keeps me off the street.

  15. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    According to that amazing report of the scientists to LBJ in 1965, the ‘threshold year’ was 50 years ago! Obama’s speech was the usual compendium of contradictory promises, trying to please everybody, that passes for ‘statemanship’ in the West these days. The proof of the pudding will be in the eating, and I, for one curmudgeon, expect far more effort to go into the energy proposals than into the, already vague, climate propositions.

  16. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    Lovins either hasn’t heard of, or denies, like a true believer, the reality of ‘Market failure’. It was, after all, considered unspeakable anathema until a few years ago, when the plethora of such failures became too great to deny any longer. Of course most market failures are only a disaster for the proles. They usually take from the many but give to the few, so the rabble’s failure is invariably the elite’s delight. Markets only work according to the mythology if the participants enjoy a level playing-field, ie a fair degree of equality of ‘market power’ ie money. In the current global social dispensation, where wealth is so markedly concentrated and distributed so unequally, markets are distorted by the sheer weight of money. If the money power wants decarbonisation, we will get it, and if not, then we will not.

  17. Merrelyn Emery says:

    Good thing too, I wouldn’t want that vocabulary let loose on the streets, could cause a riot or something, ME