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What it Will Take to Tackle the Climate Crisis

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The latest report of the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) confirms what is manifest to all but those blinded by ideology and short-term profits, but can it galvanize a response commensurate with the challenge? We may have only fifteen years to find out. Effective responses to societal crises such as this require both presidential leadership and arousal of publics and policymakers by the kinds of powerful social movements largely missing during the Obama presidency. For presidents like FDR and LBJ, crises, along with popular movements, have served as spurs to greatness in excess of prior promise.

Prospects for Presidential Leadership

Obama is no denier of climate change, and he is apparently concerned about his environmental legacy. Yet, his record, to date, is mixed at best. He has taken important steps to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, but has continued to support further fossil fuel development. Instead of taking planetary leadership in the race against climate change, the most powerful nation on earth, and nearly its highest per capital polluter, has scuttled binding international agreements for stricter fossil fuel controls.

Admittedly, Obama has faced a hostile Congress since the 2010 mid-term elections. Nonetheless, there are presidential options beyond the limited steps he has taken. He could call a Special Session of Congress to announce the findings of the IPCC report and, in view of its gravity, appoint by Executive Order a Special Bi-Partisan Commission on Climate Change with a short deadline to review the report, summarize research from a range of other reputable sources, and propose actions commensurate with the findings. In addition, the President, appropriate members of his administration and other national leaders could mount a series of Climate Change Alerts, using a variety of media -- internet, television, film, radio, newspapers, social media -- in order to educate and arouse one of the most ignorant of all publics on the realities of climate change. The climate crisis requires efforts comparable to -- and probably greater than -- the effort it took to fight the Great Depression, mobilize for World War II, or put a man on the moon. FDR, it should be remembered, asked for powers to fight the Depression as if it were a war emergency. With a new global treaty on climate change projected for 2015, there is still time for Obama to step up to the plate and become the leader the world needs.

Push from the Bottom

But if Obama is to act boldly, he needs to be pushed from below. Although FDR endorsed both old age and unemployment insurance prior to running for president, movements of the unemployed and the elderly played important roles in the struggle for Social Security, placing enormous pressure on Congress and the Administration. Moderate Democrats like John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson would not have embraced civil rights or waged a war on poverty unless proponents of these actions were on the move and in the streets. And let's not forget, that in the late 1960s and early 1970s it was pressure in the streets from environmentalists that helped to secure the Environmental Protection Act and the legislation that followed, even in a Republican administration.

In times like this environmentalists must renew that type of militancy, moving into high gear with new organizations like 350.org or older ones like Green peace and the Sierra Club that employ radical tactics, taking the reins of leadership from those who have largely confined their activities to lobbying, litigation and online petitions, just as the more radical Southern Leadership Conference and Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee eclipsed the older NAACP and Urban League. One may also hope that this crisis might evoke charismatic leadership that would do for climate change what Martin Luther King, Jr. did for civil rights. The women's and gay movements, too, were pushed forward by radical techniques.

An environmental movement on the march could take such actions as Save the Earth Vigils in Washington and throughout the nation, a massive march on Washington comparable to the great civil rights and anti-war measures of the 1960s and actions across the country that link local environmental hazards like fracking to the larger issue of climate change. Environmentalists could fight for a constitutional amendment to make a safe and sustainable environment a fundamental right, demonstrating how it is foundational to all other rights. Though this would be an uphill struggle, it would provide an aspirational moral framework that is valuable for both education and organizing. In recognizing such a right, the U.S. is an international outlier. Some 142 countries already have some rights-based environmental language in their constitutions.

There comes a time when an impending crisis can no longer be denied or ignored. That time could be too late to avert disaster; or it could be now. We write with hope that together -- an ominous scientific report, an aroused president and an invigorated, radicalized and expanded environmental movement can summon the strength to save the earth as we know it.

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.

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