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Will It Take a Climate Pearl Harbor for Obama to Pull an FDR?

Addressing climate change gradually will be too little, too late.

| Mon Jan. 7, 2013 3:33 PM EST

This story first appeared on the TomDispatch website.

Change usually happens very slowly, even once all the serious people have decided there's a problem. That's because, in a country as big as the United States, public opinion moves in slow currents. Since change by definition requires going up against powerful established interests, it can take decades for those currents to erode the foundations of our special-interest fortresses.

Take, for instance, "the problem of our schools." Don't worry about whether there actually was a problem, or whether making every student devote her school years to filling out standardized tests would solve it. Just think about the timeline. In 1983, after some years of pundit throat clearing, the Carnegie Commission published "A Nation at Risk," insisting that a "rising tide of mediocrity" threatened our schools. The nation's biggest foundations and richest people slowly roused themselves to action, and for three decades we haltingly applied a series of fixes and reforms. We've had Race to the Top, and Teach for America, and charters, and vouchers, and… we're still in the midst of "fixing" education, many generations of students later.

Even facing undeniably real problems—say, discrimination against gay people—one can make the case that gradual change has actually been the best option. Had some mythical liberal Supreme Court declared, in 1990, that gay marriage was now the law of the land, the backlash might have been swift and severe. There's certainly an argument to be made that moving state by state (starting in nimbler, smaller states like Vermont) ultimately made the happy outcome more solid as the culture changed and new generations came of age.

Which is not to say that there weren't millions of people who suffered as a result. There were. But our societies are built to move slowly. Human institutions tend to work better when they have years or even decades to make gradual course corrections, when time smooths out the conflicts between people.

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And that's always been the difficulty with climate change, the greatest problem we've ever faced. It's not a fight, like education reform or abortion or gay marriage, between conflicting groups with conflicting opinions. It couldn't be more different at a fundamental level.

We're talking about a fight between human beings and physics. And physics is entirely uninterested in human timetables. Physics couldn't care less if precipitous action raises gas prices, or damages the coal industry in swing states. It could care less whether putting a price on carbon slowed the pace of development in China, or made agribusiness less profitable.

Physics doesn't understand that rapid action on climate change threatens the most lucrative business on Earth, the fossil fuel industry. It's implacable. It takes the carbon dioxide we produce and translates it into heat, which means into melting ice and rising oceans and gathering storms. And unlike other problems, the less you do, the worse it gets. Do nothing and you soon have a nightmare on your hands.

We could postpone healthcare reform a decade, and the cost would be terrible—all the suffering not responded to over those 10 years. But when we returned to it, the problem would be about the same size. With climate change, unless we act fairly soon in response to the timetable set by physics, there's not much reason to act at all.

Unless you understand these distinctions you don't understand climate change—and it's not at all clear that President Obama understands them.

That's why his administration is sometimes peeved when they don't get the credit they think they deserve for tackling the issue in his first term in office. The measure they point to most often is the increase in average mileage for automobiles, which will slowly go into effect over the next decade.

It's precisely the kind of gradual transformation that people—and politicians—like. We should have adopted it long ago (and would have, except that it challenged the power of Detroit and its unions, and so both Republicans and Democrats kept it at bay). But here's the terrible thing: it's no longer a measure that impresses physics. After all, physics isn't kidding around or negotiating. While we were discussing whether climate change was even a permissible subject to bring up in the last presidential campaign, it was melting the Arctic. If we're to slow it down, we need to be cutting emissions globally at a sensational rate, by something like 5% a year to make a real difference.

It's not Obama's fault that that's not happening. He can't force it to happen. Consider the moment when the great president of the last century, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, was confronted with an implacable enemy, Adolf Hitler (the closest analog to physics we're going to get, in that he was insanely solipsistic, though in his case also evil). Even as the German armies started to roll through Europe, however, FDR couldn't muster America to get off the couch and fight.

There were even the equivalent of climate deniers at that time, happy to make the case that Hitler presented no threat to America. Indeed, some of them were the same institutions. The US Chamber of Commerce, for instance, vociferously opposed Lend-Lease.

So Roosevelt did all he could on his own authority, and then when Pearl Harbor offered him his moment, he pushed as hard as he possibly could. Hard, in this case, meant, for instance, telling the car companies that they were out of the car business for a while and instead in the tank and fighter-plane business.

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