Something’s been troubling me ever since I listened to President Obama’s first post-reëlection press conference.
Perhaps as a result of Hurricane Sandy, the now two-term president was finally asked a question about global warming, a topic conveniently avoided by both sides throughout the seemingly interminable campaign. The question came from New York Times White House correspondent Mark Lander: “What specifically do you plan to do in a second term to tackle the issue of climate change?”
Obama, who I voted for, began with the familiar but tired (and now essentially irrelevant) statement that,
…as you know, Mark, we can’t attribute any particular weather event to climate change.
And as perky CNN neophyte Erin Burnett would say, “Seriously?” For real, people, it’s time to retire the tired disclaimer that, “we can’t connect global warming to weather events.”
Scientists have amply explained how a hotter climate is more unstable and more likely to give us a larger quantity and/or more severe storms, mega storms, droughts, crop failures and disease outbreaks, all of course leading inevitably to human suffering and manifold economic distress.
And hey, never mind that the Butterfly Effect is a well-understood and readily accepted scientific concept. Butterfly wings we can acknowledge as having an effect on the surrounding world, near and far. But humans pumping tons of CO2 into the air? Sending pools of toxic coal sludge into rivers? Exploding nuclear facilities? Apparently, not so much.
To quote the only really memorable line from the last two years of politicking, “Malarky!”
The fact is that we don’t need to draw a straight line from global warming to the rise of desertification, a sinking Manhattan, or an ass-walloping coast-eroding storm in order to acknowledge the problem of global warming and begin in earnest to address it.
So, the question is, given the president’s other statement and the prevailing mindset of today, Will we be able to address it?
Getting really real
The president went on to say that he believes global warming is real and that it is related to human activity. He even cited rising global temperatures, increasingly rapid Arctic ice melt, and lots of bad weather. So, score one for the plucky kid with the big ears and the big grin.
He even said, “we’ve got an obligation to future generations to do something about it,” before offering a litany of things his administration has done to begin that process, items that my colleague Vicki Lipski wrote about for Transition Voice.
But then, why did he have to say this:
I think the American people right now have been so focused and will continue to be focused on our economy and jobs and growth that, you know, if the message is somehow we’re going to ignore jobs and growth simply to address climate change, I don’t think anybody’s going to go for that.
On one hand, Obama shows obvious concern and compassion for the American people. He also demonstrates that he’s politically astute and realistic. But at the same time he’s at risk of setting up a false choice between responses to de-carbonizing the economy, between growth and stagnation, and between today and a seemingly distant tomorrow.
I don’t think we have to choose between the economy and the planet — after all, on a dead planet your GDP is pretty much zero — or between today and tomorrow, since climate chaos has already started happening.
But how to work such a contentious issue politically?
That’s the president’s job, to wheel and deal with different factions to get something done that many Americans aren’t ready for yet. And in that, Obama can find a power precedent in presidential history.
Honest Abe wouldn’t shy from global warming
Recently I saw Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln, a film I really enjoyed. After that I got obsessed with the Civil War and have been rewatching Ken Burns’ glorious series on the subject and talking at length about every issue under the sun from that time period.
Like most Americans, I love President Lincoln and think we’d all be better off learning from his wisdom and following his example. Seeing him and the challenges of his time brought to life on screen is not only crucial for our historical memory, but for understanding ourselves as Americans, how we relate and struggle with each other, do politics and muck through sometimes intensely troublesome issues that strike to the core of who we are as a people and will define our era for generations to come.
Some might balk at a comparison between Lincoln valiantly trying to hold together a young and restless Union and Obama trying to fight an amorphous specter like global warming.
Some might even disdain comparing a sinful scourge like slavery with the predicaments of global warming (and its links to peak oil and manifold economic cliffs), however much those predicaments stand to make life much worse for all of us — most of all for the poor, ethnic minorities, and women — if we continue to avoid dealing with it.
I agree that on the surface, the issues couldn’t be more different. But in essentials, such as the weight of this dilemma on our lives now and into the future, its stakes for our nation’s enduring success, along with today’s crippling political immobility and maddening inability to take meaningful action, there’s more in common than first meets the eye.
In this, I think Obama is facing some of the same tensions President Lincoln did, notably the profound polarization that comes about when ideology so drives the opposition. When hope of compromise is lost the only remaining path is brinksmanship. In 1861 that brinksmanship led to civil war, rivers of blood shed to atone for our sins and push forward against the seemingly immovable.
Do we really want to go there again?
A new chapter
President Obama is correct that “we haven’t done as much as we need to” on climate. Understatement of the decade, much?
Perhaps in his first-term naivete, Obama compromised too much with the Right. But whatever the faults of that approach, it should be history now. With Obama’s resounding win in both the popular vote and even more dramatically, in electors, he’s got a stronger mandate than a president has won in decades.
George W. Bush, who won re-election by a much smaller margin in 2004, famously quipped, “I earned political capital and I’m going to use it.” Without adopting Dubya’s arrogance, Obama would do well to take this attitude and start playing hardball with GOP climate deniers and obstructionists.
The game is his now.
At the same time, Obama’s devoted backers — however lowly we mere voters may be — expect action. This will matter if the Democrats want to keep relying on a progressive public to come out in numbers for their cause in the future.
Now, we know that Obama is wiser and more realistic than the GOP in that he’s open to clean energy, convinced on global warming, and unwilling to throw ordinary Americans under the bus in the name of plutocratic privilege (eg, cut middle class programs to provide tax cuts for “job creators”).
And Obama shared a promising idea in his post-election press conference:
What I’m going to be doing over the next several weeks, next several months, is having a conversation, a wide-ranging conversation with scientists, engineers and elected officials to find out what can — what more can we do to make short-term progress in reducing carbons, and then working through an education process that I think is necessary, a discussion, the conversation across the country about, you know, what realistically can we do long term to make sure that this is not something we’re passing on to future generations that’s going to be very expensive and very painful to deal with.
A good start.
But where he goes wrong is confining his conversation to the typical echo chamber of the largely biased and unimaginative.
Engineers? Many act as if they know enough about any area of science to have an expert opinion. But all too often engineers seem to let their love of high tech technology (or their interested industry employers) guide their approach to the environment as they push for car infrastructure over transit or drilling over energy conservation or even crazy schemes for geo-engineering (eg, mirrors in space to reflect heat away from the Earth) over good old-fashioned, everyone-can-do-it, consumption and pollution reduction at home and work.
New thinking is required.
Elected officials? They’re constantly jonesing about the next election and seldom show either backbone or leadership on anything that’s high stakes if it might get them voted out of office. Talk to them, sure. But make clear that their kids’ futures look like stone age hell if they don’t get on board — yesterday!
Scientists? We should definitely listen to climatologists but what can they share that we don’t already know? They’ve won the case. All else is details. How about the science of lower tech living and more clean energy science?
Instead — or at least also — President Obama should be talking to ordinary Americans and people worldwide who are leaders in creative responses to the inevitable transition away from the current Wall Street driven “growth at all costs” paradigm to the only kind of economy for a finite planet, a steady-state economy. Many of these folks have scores of business ideas to keep economy moving, albeit in a new paradigm.
I humbly submit the partial list below for the President’s consideration:
- Climate activists like Bill McKibben
- Energy depletion experts like Richard Heinberg
- Transition movement co-founder Rob Hopkins in the U.K.
- Women and children’s homesteading advocates like Sharon Astyk
- Observers of the built environment and its relationship to resources such as the unflinching James Howard Kunstler
- Visionaries like Charles Eisenstein who are rearticulating money and economy in much more human terms
- Ecological farmers like Joel Salatin with his undeniable success in using non-industrial farming methods to make better food for consumers and help farmers make a better living too
- A raft of DIY artisans and crafters from new beer brewers to letterpress operators to upcycling entrepreneurs who are already opting out of the industrial economy and embracing the new low-tech economy. Check the visionaries behind Etsy to start with.
Obama should convene a response team that is focused on creativity and the wide ranging jobs of the future who are unafraid to recognize that business going forward will not be like business was over the past half century.
Given climate change and fossil fuel depletion, business will have to be different, so Obama might as well be honest about that and then revel in just how creative so many people are already becoming in response to this. He’s halfway there as a home brewer of craft beer alone.
In his words, “there’s no doubt that for us to take on climate change in a serious way would involve making some tough political choices.” But then he mucks it up by insisting upon business-as-usual while going back to the false dichotomy between prosperity and climate action:
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 would support.
On the surface this looks like he’s open to truly new thinking. But in the hidden text, “growth” as it’s been understood to date remains the obstacle.
The risk is that President Obama and every other elected leader is saying that they’ll do something about global warming (and the unacknowledged elephant in the room, peak oil) as long as they don’t actually have to do anything about it in the area that continues to make matters worse — the “growth” paradigm.
He knows that people may get hurt by global warming but that insists that we can’t do anything that will “hurt” people in addressing global warming.
What does “hurt” even mean? Carpooling? Outlawing plastic bags? A carbon tax for all?
To me, Obama’s rigorously planned campaign of education on global warming and his acknowledgement that decisions will be “painful” are the precursors to admitting we can’t have our growth and eat it too. But we also can’t get bottlenecked by a double-bind: that we can only address a life-threateningly acute problem as long as we don’t actually have to change anything.
We’re going to have to change things. There’s no getting around that.
The bottom line is that the clock has run out. We now need a top-to-bottom societal assessment of how we live and what we can and must give up and what we must newly adopt to stop and ultimately reverse runaway climate heating.
My advice? Start with getting rid of plastic covered plastic forks, the ultimate metaphor for a society gone wrong. And from there it will all start to fall into place.
–Lindsay Curren, Lindsay’s List