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President Obama’s Big Climate Challenge by Bill McKibben
And so our eight-year interlude from reality draws to a close, and the job of cleaning up begins. The trouble is, we’re not just cleaning up after a failed presidency. We’re cleaning up after a two-century binge.
Barack Obama has won an historic victory, and with it the right to take office under the most difficult circumstances since Franklin D. Roosevelt. Maybe more difficult, because while both FDR and Obama had financial meltdowns to deal with, Obama also faces the meltdown meltdownthe rapid disintegration of the planet’s climate system that threatens to challenge the very foundations of our civilization.
Do you think that sounds melodramatic? Let me give it to you from the abstract of a scientific paper written earlier this year by one of the people who now work for Mr. Obama, NASA scientist James Hansen. “If humanity wishes to preserve a planet similar to that on which civilization developed and to which life on Earth is adapted, paleo-climate evidence and ongoing climate change suggest that CO2 [in the atmosphere] will need to be reduced from its current 385 ppm [parts per million] to at most 350 ppm.” In other words, if we keep increasing carbon any longer, the earth itself will make our efforts moot.
Hansen’s calculation is a scientifically grounded way of saying: Everything must change at once. To meet his target, before enough feedback loops kick in to irrevocably warm the planet, Hansen says fossil-fuel combustion, particularly coal, must cease around the planet by about 2030, and that it must happen sooner in the industrialized nations. As the climate observer, and tireless blogger, Joe Romm observed when Hansen’s paper was published, it means that “we need to go straight to the government-led WWII-style effort for the whole planet that is sustained for decades.” (Well, back to FDR, what d’you know.).
Anyway, here are some of the pieces of what Obama must push for:
What it all boils down to is: The bills are coming due. And not just, or even mainly, the bills from a failed Bush presidency, but the bills from 200 years of burning fossil fuel. Twenty years ago when we started worrying about global warming, we thought we’d have a generation to pay those bills off. But we were wrongthe planet is more finely balanced than we’d realized. The melting Arctic is the call from the repo man.
It doesn’t define “political” reality, however. The political reality goes like this: George W. Bush was so terrible on this issue that the bar has been set incredibly lowObama will get all the political points he needs with fairly minimal effort. Doing what actually needs to be done will be politically ... unpopular isn’t even the word. It might well wreck his political future, because it would involvedirectly or indirectlyraising the cost of continuing to live as we do right now.
My guess, from the outside, is that all Obama’s instincts are centrist. Certainly in energy policy he’s offered nothing all that bold or interesting, though his sophistication and engagement have grown during the campaign, which is a good sign.
A better sign is simply that, by every testimony, he’s one of the smartest men ever to assume high political office in this country. Not just smarter than Bush. Really smart. Smart enough, if he sits down to really understand the scale of the problem he faces, that he might decide to take the gambles that the situation requires. He said, not long ago, “under my plan of a cap-and-trade system, electricity rates would necessarily skyrocket”which is a sign of someone who is aware there may be a reality to come to grips with.
First signs to watch for: Does he go to Poland next month for the United Nations Climate Change Conference, and in so doing electrify the international talks over carbon? Are people like green-jobs advocate Van Jones on the short list of those he’s listening to on energy policy? Can he see clear to making thisafter dealing with the short-term financial emergencyhis first legislative priority, even before health care?
Obama, and the rest of us, have a lot more to fear than fear itself. We’ve got carbon, and right now that’s the most frightening stuff on earth.
Bill McKibben’s The End of Nature, published in 1989, is regarded as the first book for a general audience on global warming. He is a founder of 350.org, a campaign to spread the goal of reducing atmospheric carbon dioxide to 350 parts per million worldwide.
Site updated Fall 09