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Obama's Lost Opportunity, and Ours

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President Obama's decision to use his executive authority to cut carbon emissions from coal-fired plants is welcome, if long overdue. Yet, it is still sadly unequal to the challenge of limiting average global temperature increase to 2ᵒ Celsius over pre-industrial levels. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has said for this to happen, carbon emissions by 2020 will have to be cut 25% to 40% from 1990 levels. If Obama were going to make this issue his signature legacy, as most news commentators suggested, his signature turned out to be far from a John Hancock.

President Obama's first mistake was to announce this important policy initiative in one of the weekly addresses that have become rather routine. In doing so, the President missed an opportunity to move the climate change agenda to the forefront of American politics. Obama should have used his authority as President to call a special session of Congress during prime time to announce his decision. Calling a special session, as has been done twenty-seven times in U.S. history, alerts both the news media and the American people that something of prime importance to the nation is about to be announced. And what could be more important than the climate crisis, the largest challenge ever faced by an American president--or for that matter any leader in the world. It should therefore have been treated as the real threat it is--to the lives and futures of billions of Americans and to the future viability of the planet. In its gravity the climate crisis is a threat comparable to a world war or a Great Depression. When FDR first addressed Congress on the need for government to deal boldly with the Great Depression, he called it the equivalent of responding to the emergency of a war. As devastating as wars and depressions are, however, recovery has been possible. Climate change, on the other hand, is the disaster that must be prevented because there is a point of no return. What Obama never showed his listeners is how his plan would avoid that point of no return, how it would enable us to keep global warming below 2ᵒ Celsius.

In an interview with Tom Friedman for the last of Showtime's series on climate change, The Years of Living Dangerously, Obama almost confessed his inability to dramatize the issue and meet the challenge:

Well, here's how I think about it. We gotta meet folks where they are. I don't always lead with the climate change issue because if you right now are worried about whether you got a job or if you can pay the bills, the first thing you want to hear is how do I meet the immediate problem? One of the hardest things in politics is getting a democracy to deal with something now where the payoff is long-term or the price of inaction is decades away.

The price of inaction is not decades away! In this statement Obama reveals a stunning ignorance of the major message of the latest IPCC report: that climate change losses are already upon us. Had Obama recognized this he could have used the special session of Congress to educate the American people about how climate change is affecting every aspect of our earth's ecosystem by drawing examples from the IPCC's Summary for Policy Makers or by giving a public platform to the scientists who have made the assessments. Speaking from a children's hospital, the President did call attention to how climate change aggravates asthma and other health problems. Still, he could have painted a more graphic picture of the damage that climate change is wreaking on the country-- with a few chosen statistics and illustrations about the effects of droughts, wildfires, floods and hurricanes on home, job, and business losses, and even lives.

While acknowledging that these new policies will mean job losses for workers in fossil-fuel-dependent industries and states, Obama passed up an opportunity to deflect the criticism he knew this would generate. He could have challenged Congress to come up with funding for a conversion plan to re-educate and retrain redundant fossil fuel workers by providing grants and government-guaranteed loans to stimulate renewable energy businesses and training for such jobs in those states that will be most affected by the new EPA rules. Instead, he simply generalized that job losses had not followed other environmental rules and that it would save lives and costs of health care.

There is precedent for a bold conversion plan. After World War II, great numbers of soldiers became redundant. The GI Bill provided transitional help for some 8.8 million veterans: low-cost mortgages, low-interest business loans, tuition and living expenses to attend college, high school or vocational education, as well as one year of unemployment compensation. This was done when the national deficit owing to World War II was far higher in relation to GDP than it is today--22.2 percent in 1944 when the bill was passed, compared with an estimated 3.7 percent in 2014. By upgrading the education and skills of the work force, the G.I. bill contributed to a period of unparalleled prosperity in the United States.

While the number of job losses expected as a result of the new EPA rules is contested, the number of workers employed in the coal industry has been falling in recent years and amounts to only one-sixteenth of 1 percent of overall U.S. employment. Shutting down the entire industry, which is not likely all at once, would eliminate fewer jobs than America lost in an average week during the Great Recession. A conversion program is thus eminently doable, given the political will.

Finally, Obama lost an opportunity to paint in a few bold strokes a vision of how much better off we would all be with an economy built on renewable energy. If the population is going to be asked to make big changes in its lifestyle, it needs a positive vision to provide the incentive.

If Obama doesn't measure up to the imagination and boldness of FDR, what about environmentalists? Too often we protest without demanding the kinds of policies (e.g. a conversion plan) that will speak to those most likely to be hurt by the direction we want the country to take. We could also learn from the social movements of the 1930s that pressured the Roosevelt administration to enact social security, unemployment insurance, and fair labor laws. They flooded Washington with petitions, marched, organized, and protested and at all times made demands in excess of the "slightly-left of center" president, thereby countering the inevitable forces of inertia. And would Lyndon Johnson, reluctant to push civil rights as a senator, have embraced the cause had activists not made civil rights the burning issue for the nation? Or would Richard Nixon have passed the first significant environmental legislation in nearly half a century if militant environmentalists were not out in the streets demanding the shutdown of nuclear power plants and the regulation of toxics?

Barack Obama forfeited one great opportunity--not only for his own legacy, but for our futures. In the interview with Tom Friedman he seemed resigned to waiting for a series of catastrophic disasters to wake up the American people and their politicians. We cannot be stymied by his apathy. We who are passionate about the fate of the earth and our progeny must not let him get away with it. Perhaps what is being planned as the largest climate change march in history, scheduled for mid-September in New York City at the time governmental leaders are meeting at the U.N., may finally get some traction.

See the authors' recent book, When Government Helped: Learning from the Successes and Failures of the New Deal (Oxford University Press, 2013) for more on social movements, the environment, and presidential leadership.