"So tonight, I challenge you to join me in setting a new goal: By 2035, 80 percent of America's electricity will come from clean energy sources. Some folks want wind and solar. Others want nuclear, clean coal and natural gas. To meet this goal, we will need them all -- and I urge Democrats and Republicans to work together to make it happen."
- President Barack Obama, State of the Union Address (January 25, 2011)
President Obama's 2011 State of the Union address was a political masterstroke in that it accomplished two diametrically opposed goals at the same time: the President appeased the American public by calling for a modern day, green energy moon shot, then he undercut any hope for real change by reassuring powerful, polluting corporations that America's energy future would be anything but green.
First, the good: the President publicly acknowledged, for the first time, a deep hunger in the American psyche for a generational mission around a U.S.-led green industrial revolution. He called it our "Sputnik moment." That he is listening to Main Street, America on this issue shows that he can be reached. The President also bravely proposed eliminating the billions in subsidies we currently give to oil companies to help pay for it.
Now the bad: President Obama did not mention the global climate crisis once in his speech, despite 2010 being tied as the hottest year on record. Ignoring this gravest of threats to America will not magically make it go away. Every leading national scientific academy in the world has concluded that human activity is changing the climate. Here's how: heat-trapping greenhouse gases have been building up in the atmosphere because the burning of coal, oil and natural gas releases more carbon dioxide (CO2) than can be absorbed by oceans and forests.
Here are the numbers: pre-industrial revolution, the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere was roughly 280 parts per million (ppm). We are now at 390 ppm, and growing at a rate of 2 ppm per year. At current levels, we are already witnessing a dangerously destabilized climate marked by crop-destroying heat waves; devastating floods; melting arctic sea ice; rising sea levels; and deadlier storms. Scientists who devote their lives to studying the climate tell us we must get back down to 350 ppm as quickly as possible to save civilization as we know it. In other words, we need to bring carbon emissions down to near zero to keep temperatures from rising further.
Now for the worst: in his speech, the President intentionally muddied the waters between dirty energy sources and truly clean energy sources like solar, wind and geothermal by trying to redefine mythical "clean coal," radioactive nuclear power and polluting natural gas as "clean energy." The American people have come to expect this kind of subterfuge from polluters afraid of progress, but it should not be emanating from the White House. This is shameless government greenwash, and must not stand. Every precious taxpayer dollar wasted on harmful energy sources is a dollar not invested in a green energy future for our kids.
It is time for President Obama to figure out whose side he is on: that of everyday, patriotic Americans who want what's best for their children or that of unaccountable, corporate entities blindly driven by greed. The decisions we are about to make as a nation could very well determine whether future generations get to keep living on planet Earth. Let that sink in for a moment. This means we have to get it right the first time, for we may not get a second chance.
We will know the President is serious about meeting the expectations of our children to protect their futures when he declares a global climate emergency and places it at the top of his policy agenda. Crafty political speeches won't save us, but bold political leadership just might. The clock is ticking, Mr. President, and time is running out.
This piece was co-authored with Brent Blackwelder, President Emeritus of Friends of the Earth. Mr. Blackwelder is the most senior environmental lobbyist in Washington, DC and has testified in front of Congress on pressing environmental issues more than 100 times.