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Jessy Tolkan Headshot

Dashed Hopes: Unless Obama Steps Up, My Generation's Future Is in Peril

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As I write from Copenhagen, it's hard to imagine that the rest of the world is wrapping up lose ends and holiday gifts, preparing to start a new decade with resolutions and resolve. It is hard to be inspired right now, having waited so patiently with all the others demanding a clean and just energy future for budget crises and health care bills to give our issue the attention it demands, only to see that the United States is unlikely to deliver the bold action I voted for in 2008.

Sure, "Anything But Bush" worked pretty well on the campaign trail, but simply being better than an administration that denied facts and science does not solve a problem that has no room for incremental progress. Just because the Bush Administration set the bar low doesn't mean we can raise it an inch and jump over it as heroes, especially when we know the stakes are considerably higher.

I have faith that this administration, that my President can take giant leaps beyond where we've been, and nothing short of that is required in these negotiations.

I thought this year would be much different.

Last year I saw a nation rally around a once-thought impossible notion of electing Barack Obama. The movement behind the election of Obama gave me and my peers a sense that this man was different than the politicians that had come before him. He was a visionary, compassionate citizen of the world. I believed, and think many others did as well, that it wasn't merely his election that was historic, but that we elected someone capable of making history in his presidency. I believed he would disregard political inconvenience to protect the young people who worked for him from an irreversible, disastrous future.

I want to believe now that the reassuring and hopeful promises being made to us by the president's top cabinet officials are a step in the right direction. I cannot ignore the fact that the solutions on the table are inadequate, and as a citizen concerned about my generation I have to sound the alarm.

The intensity of these Copenhagen negotiations grows by the day, and frustration continues to mount over the politicization of the basic principles of survival and justice. More than 100,000 people filled the streets over the weekend for the largest single demonstration of public demand for climate justice in history. Civil society in hundreds of nations around the globe have been as clear as they can be: They demand change! They will settle for nothing less and the time has come!

On Monday night a group of 20 young leaders met directly with the top U.S. negotiators, including Jonathan Pershing and Todd Stern. During an emotional hour-long session, the divide between where we as youth know we need to go and where our country's position remains was literally tearing at our hearts. Tears poured down the faces of impassioned young leaders who are having a tremendously difficult time understanding how it is that after all their efforts and the election of a visionary president, our nation could remain so far from delivering what the world expects, deserves and demands.

I spent yesterday morning with CEOs of the country's largest green groups and former Vice President Al Gore. A serious and at times somber mood filled the room as intelligence was shared and the best- and worst-case scenarios played out. The details of finance, targets, and the legal form of the agreement couldn't be more important, but I'm left feeling that at the end of the day this is going to come down to whether or not political courage can be displayed on this global stage of COP 15 in the coming days.

This is one of those moments that requires all of us, and particularly our leadership, to rise to the occasion. Conventional political wisdom might tell this administration to hold back, to be less aggressive in pursuit of maintaining support for our domestic policy. People might advise President Obama to play it safe, to not commit beyond what he has already secured votes around.

But we are past the point of safe, and our only HOPE at this point is that Obama as a leader digs deeps and goes big. There were so many defining moments last year that show us he is capable of it.

He told us that nothing could stand in the way of millions of voices calling for change, and I hope this week that he hears us: We must put long-term financing on the table, and remember in Denmark Friday that he is not addressing his fellow heads of state, but the millions of people whose lives are at stake.

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