Denis Hayes: Five Things The President Should Do To Tackle Climate Change

To be remembered as a great president, Barack Obama has to address the greatest issue of his time

Sally Jewell accepting Interior Secretary nomination

By Denis Hayes, via Crosscut

The stature awarded President Obama by future historians will be very largely determined by his response to one issue: climate disruption. The President’s recent speeches, and appointments like our own Sally Jewell (as Interior Secretary) and John Kerry suggest that he recognizes this.

The difference between a good president and a great president has little to do with the exigencies of politics. While economic prosperity and domestic tranquility are vital to winning elections, no federal monuments will be built to honor the fiscal stimulus package or Obamacare.

Greatness is measured by how a leader addresses the big inflection points in history that occur on his or her watch.

Such inflection points are not always obvious. In the late 18th century, every major political figure viewed the Seven Years War as the dominant event of the era. Today, not one person in 10,000 can distinguish the Seven Years War from the Thirty Years War, or the Great Northern War, or the War of the Spanish Succession.

What is best remembered of that period is a declaration of independence by 13 rambunctious British colonies with revolutionary ideas about social, political, and economic organization.

In 2013, public attention is fixed on Afghanistan and the unemployment rate. Twenty-five years from now, these will be footnotes, not inflection points.

What really matters today? The digital revolution and the explosive rise of China are strong candidates. But the greatest challenge of our epoch is global climate disruption.

At its worst, climate disruption threatens catastrophe akin to the Five Great Extinctions that our planet experienced over the past 500 million years. Bold climate policy, on the other hand, could lead to an ultra-efficient planet powered mostly by the sun and living in a productive state of ecological harmony.

We face a choice between unparalleled, almost-irreversible devastation and a golden age. On its surface, that is not a tough choice. But to date, every President has ignored, or dodged, that decision. More than any other issue on the global agenda, we must not continue to kick this can down the road.

America, which led the world into the oil age, had an opportunity to lead it back out. Instead, in company with Saudi Arabia, China, and Canada, the United States has scuttled efforts at international climate agreements or rendered them toothless. Our system of capitalistic democracy has provided no effective counter-balance to a massive campaign of deception, funded by oil and coal companies, that has hog-tied national policy on climate disruption.

How Barack Obama addresses the climate crisis will determine whether he is remembered as a good President, or a great one.

Four years ago, after a long bitter primary campaign, a weary candidate Obama told a St. Paul, MN crowd that “generations would look back” and say “this was the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow, and our planet began to heal.”

As President, his attempts to pass a cap-and-trade law were crushed by almost-unanimous partisan opposition in Congress. By 2012, the only people who remembered his “heal-the-earth” comment were on Mitt Romney’s research team.

Today, the President seems more pragmatic and deliberate. In his Inauguration Address, he devoted more words to climate disruption than to any other single topic. “We will respond to the threat of climate change, knowing that failure to do so would betray our children and future generations,” Mr. Obama said. “Some may still deny the overwhelming judgment of science, but none can avoid the devastating impact of raging fires, and crippling drought, and more powerful storms.”

Those sound like the words of a President who has decided to bend history. A President who is prepared to tackle the biggest issue of his time.

What should he do?

1. The President should speak out boldly and soon about the goals he wants to be remembered for. Lincoln did not just ask for an Emancipation Law — he issued an Emancipation Proclamation! President Obama should commit the United States to a 25-year plan that will end our use of fossil fuels. And he should make clear that America’s scientists, industrialists and workers will achieve that energy revolution, regardless of whether China or India or Russia chooses to join the effort.

2. He should build a cabinet of hard-charging leaders who will make climate a priority in their domains. The selection of Seattle’s Sally Jewell as Secretary of Interior and John Kerry as Secretary of State are important steps in that direction. Both are more knowledgeable about climate issues, and vastly more committed to addressing them, than their predecessors. The most important choices, however, lie ahead. The departing leaders of the Environmental Protection Agency (Lisa Jackson) and the Department of Energy (Steve Chu) were the strongest senior climate advocates of President Obama’s first term. Their departures sent chills through the climate community. The selection of top-tier replacements such asGina McCarthy for EPA and Bill Ritter for Energy would send a clear signal that President Obama is serious.

3. The President should use his executive powers to arrest or reverse the most dangerous, climate-related practices. Most of these involve the extraction, transport and burning of coal and other hydrocarbon fuels. Mr. Obama should, for example, shut down existing coal-fired power plants and make new ones impossible to permit; strictly regulate or ban coal exports; stop the importation or sale of liquid fuels from tar sands and coal liquefaction; accelerate the federal drive to electrify our vehicle fleet; and follow the rest of the industrialized world (even China!) in building a nation-wide grid of high-speed electric trains. It is not enough to complain that Congress won’t act. The President can and must do what has to be done.

4. The President should deploy the American military in the climate cause. No part of the federal government is more energy intensive, or energy aware than the U.S. Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines. Rabid interest in ultra-efficient, distributed and renewable energy sources permeates all branches of the armed services. Every military facility should feature “living buildings,” coated with solar panels and tied together in smart, hack-proof micro-grids. The American military has been the birthplace of many historic firsts — racial integration, the GI Bill, etc. Today, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) might be the best cutting-edge science organization in the nation. The American military is poised, and eager, to lead America into a post-carbon world. The President should help it.

5. “Organizing for Action,” Obama’s new advocacy group, should unleash a massive grassroots climate brigade. Designed to create an independent power base to support Obama’s top priorities, OFA boasts such top-notch political operatives as Jim Messina and David Axelrod. Its Executive Director is Jon Carson, the former chief of staff at the White House Council on Environmental Quality — and a propitious choice. OFA should be richly funded to organize a coalition that can defeat the antediluvian forces within big oil and coal. That coalition will include high tech, finance, farmers, public health, and dozens of other interest groups. But at its core will be the tens of millions of citizen activists who were inspired by Obama’s promise, and remain eager to help him realize it.

IF President Obama brings the full strength of his bully pulpit to bear on the climate issue, marshals the independent power of the cabinet departments and agencies, inspires the nation’s technical genius and entrepreneurial talent to rise to the challenge, and mobilizes the 80 percent of Americans who will support him on his quest to overcome the inertia and save the planet, he will join the tiny pantheon ofgreat Presidents, the ones who make us proud to be Americans.

— Denis Hayes is the president of the Bullitt Foundation, former director of the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and chairs the international Earth Day Network. Reach him care of Reprinted from Crosscut with permission.


32 Responses to Denis Hayes: Five Things The President Should Do To Tackle Climate Change

  1. Dale left coast says:

    Americas days of leading anyone anywhere are gone . . . every country that has gone down the “Green Energy” rat hole is bankrupt . . . .
    Since there is NOTHING to replace oil and gas tomorrow, next week, next year or in the forseable future . . . one day Dilithium Chrystals will be invented . . . but that could be decades away.
    The Gorebull Warming scare has ended . . . no warming in 16 years, no science to back the “Scare” . . . and no scientists willing to debate today in the public square. CO2 is plant food . . . nothing more.
    Who picked Lenin’s birthday for “Earth Day” ? Says a lot about your group . . . the Watermelon Party . . .

  2. Gene hacking food for power results in nasty surprises. seeds will be the power.

  3. David Smith says:

    Thanks for introducing humor into the discussion. It gets a little heavy around here sometimes.

  4. fj says:

    Bold climate action pretty much says it.

    We’ve been way too timid for way too long.

  5. question says:


    I’m really sorry that you feel this way, but I think you need to do a bit more research on the topic before framing such a strong opinion.

    1) Germany is moving strongly towards a greener energy supply and yet over the past three years has averaged a 2.6% growth rate in GDP. The US by comparison in the same three years has managed only 2.1% growth.
    Germany is also considered the “banker of Europe” and actually has a debt to GDP ratio about the same as the US. Again, hardly bankrupt.

    2) We have the technologies needed. Wind is cheaper than coal for new generation. Solar is dropping in price like a rock and even today is competitive with other forms of energy in over a dozen states. Battery technology is leaping ahead. Study after study show that the key aspect is deployment. As we deploy the prices drop dramatically and solutions become smarter and more capable. More research is great, but you don’t need to hold your breath for dilithium crystals.

    3) The science backing global climate change is absolutely rock solid and has been for decades. There are dozens, hundreds of scientist willing to debate this point, even despite intimidation tactics used by deniers and the fossil fuel lobby.

    Doubtless you are referring to 1998 when you claim there has been no warming in “16 years”. 1998 was a unusually strong el nino event which increased global temperatures significantly.. To use 1998 as the *starting* point of your comparison is disingenuous at best. Please look at the full data set. Every decade has been getting progressively hotter. Climate doesn’t change on a dime so year by year variations not significant.

    best wishes

  6. fj says:

    During World War II the automobile industry stopped building cars for nearly three years and built machinery supporting an American effort of previously unimaginable proportions.

    We must start immediately building carbon free transportation systems and carbon free retrofit methods, materials and apparatus for rapid global deployment.

  7. sailrick says:

    Well the first comment shows the kind of willful ignorance we are up against

  8. To deny the reality of AGW, you have to maintain that if the atmosphere had 40% less CO2 (about 170 ppm), rather than 40% more (about 400 ppm), the weather would be no different. More basically, you have to deny that CO2 traps heat, or deny that CO2 comes out of smokestacks and tailpipes.

    You also have to call NASA, NOAA, and the National Academy of Sciences liars.

    No one wants AGW to be true. But the shrinking ice cap says it is. The precessing growing seasons say it is. The declining alkalinity and warming of the oceans says it is. Just like coughing, shortness of breath, cancer, and heart disease say tobacco harm is real, even if those phenomena can happen without smoking. They are not mutually exclusive. The fact that climate change happened without human emissions does not prove that we are not torquing the climate.

  9. Doug Burke says:

    First on the list should be: reject the Keystone XL Pipeline. Turning this down would be a huge symbol and a very big concrete act, making it much more likely that hundreds of millions of barrels of oil will never be manufactured out of filthy tar sands. If Obama okays the pipeline, it will tend to make all his good words meaningless.

  10. me? me? me? oh, i do so love to be loved
    or even noticed. laughing maniacally i cry, they really do notice me, they really do…

  11. fj says:

    Hayes’ “80 percent of Americans will support him” is accurate since about 15 percent of the population will never change no matter what, are normally considered lagards in social change terms and not worth wasting time on.

  12. Joan Savage says:

    Many presidents and /or first ladies have sponsored particular ventures, but “Organizing for Action” seems more omnibus, more multi-purpose, given Michelle Obama’s video message on the homepage.

  13. we already killed hundreds of thousands for oil. XL doesn’t matter to life on earth because:
    1) alter existing cross-border network
    2) Tarsands railway up 500% since December
    3) Alternative Canadian routes
    4) Canadian refinery construction

  14. Brooks Bridges says:

    I think the trick for him is to do so many of the above so fast that by the end of 4 years the evidence it was the best thing to do will be incontrovertible – at least to people who accept reality. Gotta be shock and awe.

    But Krugman keeps repeating on his blog how the right wing keeps ignoring simple economic data and being wrong year after year and never acknowledging it so they’ll be the same on climate change till the Atlantic floods DC.

  15. Merrelyn Emery says:

    While there is a brief, somewhat doubtful, mention of the international negotiations in the text, surely there should be a point 6 spelling out that he needs to instruct his team to negotiate in good faith for an agreement that puts the global climate first and the USA’s special interests second. Without this aspect of policy, I doubt that many around the world would grant him the status of ‘great’, ME

  16. Mark E says:


    6. Compel a rewriting of the home-mortgage appraisal rules to make energy efficiency as important a factor as location, location, location.

    A. Applies to all home mortgage applications….

    B. Home energy audit mandatory….

    C. Calculate projected energy costs over life of the loan using current prices and results of energy audit….

    D. Analyze loans based on combination of purchase price and projected energy costs

    E. Rewrite appraisal rules so that “what the market will bear” includes not just today’s closing price, but the projected energy cost as well

    I’m sure this needs a lot of work. But the idea is to teach all parties to take energy efficiency just as seriously as location, and to give existing owners incentive to do deep energy retrofitting because they can have some reasonable expectation to recover that investment upon sale of the property.

    Right now, two identical houses, side by side, can appraise just about the same even if one is efficient, and the other leaks like a sieve

  17. Rabid Doomsayer says:

    It is getting so very late , will Obama step up to the plate.

  18. Lewis Blaustein says:

    Is it too hard to go to the moon, eradicate smallpox or end apartheid? Is it too hard to build a computer that fits in your pocket? No? Then it’s not too hard to build a clean energy future, either.

  19. Charles Coleman says:

    How we deal with climate change is the single most important issue in the world today. If President Obama can rally the American people and the world to take on this challenge, history will judge him kindly. It’s not the fault of the politicians or the oil lobby that we are in this crisis. It requires each one of us to overcome the desire to constantly want more. Human greed has created the predicament we now face.

  20. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    I’ve just discovered what a ‘poe’ is, after being accused of being one. This has got to be the Edgar Allen of all Poes, surely?

  21. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    The Canadian police and intelligence agencies are targeting Green groups as ‘terrorists’, and that, my friend, is the reality of how the Right will react when resistance to enforced mass suicide begins to grow. They know no other way to prevail but through intimidation, coercion and violence, having no intellectual or moral credibility at all.

  22. Eve says:

    Do it please, we will laugh at you freezing to death in the dark. Just do it. Turn your main breaker off.

  23. Eve says:

    Says the man trying to sell you a solar panel. But I don’t want Americans not to do this carbon tax. I want you to. The sooner you are all dead, the sooner we can move south. Hurry up!

  24. Eve says:

    Simple Chris, Turn your main breaker off. Do you know where that is? If not, do not pay your electicity bill. They will turn it off for you.

  25. vrussell says:

    As a race, humans have accomplished so much. We can tackle this too. We need a president like Obama to take hold of this crisis before it is too late.It is not too hard to build a clean energy future.

  26. Joan Savage says:


    The proposed advocacy group’s list of issues are not at all limited to Denis Hayes’ agenda.

    Here’s a cut and paste from the Organizing for Action’s webpage:


    Jobs and the economy
    Taxes and the budget
    Health care

  27. fj says:

    Better yet, start thinking community smart micro grids, solar, superinsulation, very high effiency, safe streets, bicycles and leveraging early stage bicycle technology for much more advanced carbon zero systems . . .

  28. fj says:

    Many thousands of people were not laughing when the power companies lost power for extended periods; as the power companies have been laggards when it comes to facing the dire threats and necessary changes caused by climate change.

  29. John McCormick says:

    Denis, no mention of China.

    No mention that President Obama is free to negotiate a bi-lateral agreement with China regarding climate change.

    Why did you not include that?

  30. Carl Duivenvoorden says:

    Is it too hard to go to the moon, eradicate smallpox or end apartheid? Is it too hard to build a computer that fits in your pocket? No? Then it’s not too hard to build a clean energy future, either. Weaklings and followers may give up on things just because they are ‘too hard’, but leaders and winners sure don’t.

  31. vrussell says:

    Is it too hard to go to the moon, eradicate smallpox or end apartheid? Is it too hard to build a computer that fits in your pocket? No? Then it’s not too hard to build a clean energy future, either.

  32. LongPlay says:

    Is it too hard to go to the moon, eradicate smallpox or end apartheid? Is it too hard to build a computer that fits in your pocket? No? Then it’s not too hard to build a clean energy future, either.