02/20/2013 04:17 pm ET | Updated Apr 22, 2013

The First Big Climate Test for Obama 2.0

It has not taken long for Barack Obama to face the first big test of his resolve on combatting global climate disruption.

That test is the Keystone Pipeline, which would carry one of the dirtiest of all fossil fuels from the tar sands of Canada to refineries on the Gulf of Mexico. Obama ultimately is "the decider" on whether or not to let the pipeline proceed.

A great deal has been written about the pros and cons of Keystone, including competing claims about its impacts on jobs, the environment, gasoline prices and so on. There is strong evidence that the money would be better invested in clean energy and associated jobs.

However, too little has been written about the moral dimension of Obama's decision. That dimension is succinctly described by K.C. Golden, the policy director at Climate Solutions. He calls it the "Keystone Principle":

We cannot abide any major federal action that results in long-term capital investments that lock in emission trajectories that make catastrophic climate disruption inevitable. More simply, we have much patient work to do over many decades to make it better, but we must immediately stop making it worse. We are in the "era of consequences" now. Each month brings new pictures of the victims. Today and every day from here forward, we can pledge ourselves to this and demand it of the Obama Administration: We will not allow major new investments in making climate disruption worse.

Allowing the pipeline to proceed is simply incompatible with any serious effort to reduce the consequences of climate disruption. On the other hand, killing Keystone would be solid evidence that Obama 2.0, liberated from re-election, is the climate leader we have been waiting for.

Keystone - in essence a pipeline that would bring persistent new atmospheric poisons into the United States and make us complicit with Canada in exporting them to other countries -- is only one of several climate-related decisions Obama must make in the near term, each one a test of his resolve.

He must appoint a capable and courageous Administrator to replace Lisa Jackson at the Environmental Protection Agency. He and the new Administrator must use their powers under the Clean Air Act to expedite the regulation of new power plants; extend those regulations to existing power plants; crack down on methane emissions from natural gas production; and phase out the use of HFCs in the United States.

Another important test is how Obama will reconcile the inherent contradiction between his promises about climate leadership and his "all of the above" energy strategy. His bullish support for increased oil production directly contradicts the goal of mitigating climate change. The contradiction cannot be resolved by throwing money at carbon sequestration; it is an uncertain, costly, not-ready-for-prime-time technical fix that even if perfected would likely become our next Yucca Mountains.

Obama can redeem his energy policy by 1) explaining that while the Administration will weigh the benefits and costs of all energy options, it will support only the "best of the above", and 2) ordering the development of a clear national roadmap to clean energy with steep off -ramps for fossil fuels and steep on-ramps for renewable energy.

If he deals with climate change decisively, Barack Obama can become a president of destiny well beyond his status as the first Black American elected and reelected to the office. He has all the evidence he needs about how climate change will destabilize our economy, public health and national security. He has an opportunity to guide the United States through a pivotal point in our history - our last big energy transition, a national policy that finally recognizes our codependence with natural systems, and an economy that fulfills the Constitution's promise of life, liberty and opportunity for us and generations to come.

Our greatest presidents have put political calculus aside to do what was right for the United States and its role in the world. Lincoln did not shy away from the moral imperative to end slavery because of a recalcitrant Congress or the horrible cost of civil war. FDR did not shy away from the moral obligation to defend countries far away by turning American industry overnight into the world's arsenal of democracy.

If these examples seem hyperbolic, then we don't fully understand the real implications of global climate change or our unquestionable moral obligation to deal with it now.