For Obama, faced with a Congress bought off by the fossil fuel industry, a realistic approach would be to do absolutely everything he could on his own authority—new Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulations, for example; and of course, he should refuse to grant the permit for the building of the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline, something that requires no permission from John Boehner or the rest of Congress.
So far, however, he's been half-hearted at best when it comes to such measures. The White House, for instance, overruled the EPA on its proposed stronger ozone and smog regulations in 2011, and last year opened up the Arctic for oil drilling, while selling off vast swaths of Wyoming's Powder River Basin at bargain-basement prices to coal miners. His State Department flubbed the global climate-change negotiations. (It's hard to remember a higher profile diplomatic failure than the Copenhagen summit.) And now Washington rings with rumors that he'll approve the Keystone pipeline, which would deliver 900,000 barrels a day of the dirtiest crude oil on Earth. Almost to the drop, that's the amount his new auto mileage regulations would save.
If he were serious, Obama would be doing more than just the obvious and easy. He'd also be looking for that Pearl Harbor moment. God knows he had his chances in 2012: the hottest year in the history of the continental United States, the deepest drought of his lifetime, and a melt of the Arctic so severe that the federal government's premier climate scientist declared it a "planetary emergency."
In fact, he didn't even appear to notice those phenomena, campaigning for a second term as if from an air-conditioned bubble, even as people in the crowds greeting him were fainting en masse from the heat. Throughout campaign 2012, he kept declaring his love for an "all-of-the-above" energy policy, where apparently oil and natural gas were exactly as virtuous as sun and wind.
Only at the very end of the campaign, when Hurricane Sandy seemed to present a political opening, did he even hint at seizing it—his people letting reporters know on background that climate change would now be one of his top three priorities (or maybe, post-Newtown, top four) for a second term. That's a start, I suppose, but it's a long way from telling the car companies they better retool to start churning out wind turbines.
And anyway, he took it back at the first opportunity. At his post-election press conference, he announced that climate change was "real," thus marking his agreement with, say, President George H.W. Bush in 1988. In deference to "future generations," he also agreed that we should "do more." But addressing climate change, he added, would involve "tough political choices." Indeed, too tough, it seems, for here were his key lines:
"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 if the message is somehow we're going to ignore jobs and growth simply to address climate change, I don't think anybody is going to go for that. I won't go for that."
It's as if World War II British Prime Minister Winston Churchill had declared, "I have nothing to offer except blood, toil, tears, and sweat. And God knows that polls badly, so just forget about it."
The president must be pressed to do all he can—and more. That's why thousands of us will descend on Washington D.C. on President's Day weekend, in what will be the largest environmental demonstration in years. But there's another possibility we need to consider: that perhaps he's simply not up to this task, and that we're going to have to do it for him, as best we can.
If he won't take on the fossil fuel industry, we will. That's why on 192 campuses nationwide active divestment movements are now doing their best to highlight the fact that the fossil fuel industry threatens their futures.
If he won't use our position as a superpower to drive international climate-change negotiations out of their rut, we'll try. That's why young people from 190 nations are gathering in Istanbul in June in an effort to shame the U.N. into action. If he won't listen to scientists—like the 20 top climatologists who told him that the Keystone pipeline was a mistake—then top scientists are increasingly clear that they'll need to get arrested to make their point.
Those of us in the growing grassroots climate movement are going as fast and hard as we know how (though not, I fear, as fast as physics demands). Maybe if we go fast enough even this all-too-patient president will get caught up in the draft. But we're not waiting for him. We can't.
Bill McKibben is Schumann Distinguished Scholar at Middlebury College, founder of the global climate campaign 350.org, a TomDispatch regular, and the author, most recently, of Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet.
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