02/29/2012 05:20 pm ET Updated Apr 30, 2012

The Warm War

There's nothing more hilarious than the right-wing contention that those who are concerned about the threat of climate change are nothing more than neo-communists. Of course, what isn't funny is the reality that climate change poses the same threat to this generation that communism posed to previous generations.

This year marks the 25th anniversary of President Ronald Reagan's "Tear Down This Wall" speech at the Brandenburg Gate in West Berlin, Germany. Two years ago, I had the opportunity to interview author Romesh Ratnesar, who had just written a book about the lead-up to the speech. In the book, Tear Down This Wall: A City, a President, and the Speech that Ended the Cold War, Ratnesar notes:

"Tear Down This Wall's" significance lies less in the outcomes it directly led to than in the ideas it represented. It was on the right side of history. Reagan did not expect Gorbachev to open the Brandenburg Gate simply because Reagan challenged him to do so. But throughout his presidency -- throughout his life -- Reagan did cling to the view that the world need not remain divided, that people could overcome the barriers between them, that change was possible.

Reagan did the right thing by delivering that speech. Now, President Obama needs to do the right thing by delivering a "State of the Climate Address" highlighting the need to take action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Obama has been remarkably skittish about mentioning climate change. The indispensable environmental blogger Joseph Romm has argued that David Axelrod and other members of Obama's inner circle have convinced the President that environmental and climate issues do not drive votes. Team Obama has it half-right -- environmental and climate issues do not drive the votes of those who are already vehemently anti-Obama. There is no political downside to Obama making climate change an issue in this election. Those who would be disgusted by a "State of the Climate Address" have already sent their donations to the Santorum campaign.

Obama won the White House in part by promising to bring an end to the tyranny of oil. He will not win re-election unless he assures the American people that he will hold those who are eroding our environment to account.

Obama should take his cue from Rhode Island Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, who has demonstrated uncommon clarity and bravery in his explanation of the risks we face. Whitehouse has written the template for Obama to follow: He simply has to cite the evidence, note the potential dangers, and state that America can lead the world in addressing the emergency of escalating emissions.

Obama should also strongly endorse California Representative Pete Stark's Save Our Climate Act. As Steve Valk of Citizens Climate Lobby notes:

Stark's bill goes right to the heart of the problem: The need to put a price on carbon that weans our nation off fossil fuels and reduces the greenhouse gases that are altering the Earth's climate.

Remarkably simple at 18 pages, the Save Our Climate Act calls for a tax starting at $10 per ton on the carbon dioxide that a fuel would emit when burned. The tax would be imposed at the first point of sale -- at the mine, well or port of entry. Each year, it would increase by $10 a ton, sending a clear predictable price signal to the investment community that wind, solar and other alternative sources of energy will be a smart bet...

If enacted, Stark's bill would generate massive amounts of revenue, a tantalizing prospect in cash-strapped Washington. But rather than spend the money on a plethora of pet projects or sops to the fossil fuel industry, the Save Our Climate Act would divvy up most of the revenue and return it to American consumers as an annual payment. The "dividend" from the carbon tax would therefore offset rising energy costs that households will experience from the carbon tax. And the more people do to reduce their carbon footprint -- increasing energy efficiency, driving electric or hybrid vehicles -- the more dividend they get to keep.

As I said, "most" of the revenue would be returned to households. The legislation will take a small portion of the money to pay down the national debt. The Carbon Tax Center estimates that in 10 years time this would eliminate close to half a trillion dollars of our nation's $15 trillion debt. In the second year of the tax, $10 per ton would go to debt reduction and be applied to that purpose in subsequent years. The amount returning to households would continue to rise as the tax increases each year. In 10 years time, when the tax reaches $100 per ton, $10 of every $100 would be devoted to debt reduction and $90 would be given back to consumers. At that point, the Carbon Tax Center estimates the average annual dividend would be $1,170.

The Save Our Climate Act is the best step to move America away from fossil fuels, and give our country the momentum and moral capital necessary to compel China and India to reduce their emissions as well.

Who cares if Fox and the friends of fossil fuels freak out? If Obama didn't deliver this speech, they'd just get outraged about something else. However, by giving a rousing "State of the Climate Address," Obama would draw a line in the sand, a line between logic and lunacy, a line between reason and recklessness, a line between concerned mothers and the Koch brothers.

Obama can make this happen. Why not deliver this speech on Earth Day? What better way to position himself as the man who will represent science's interests in Washington, as opposed to the interests of the American Petroleum Institute?

Ever since James Hansen warned America about the warming world in 1988, the climate-conscious have been waiting for a president who will protect present and future generations, a president who will say no to Big Oil's blatant obstructionism. This is Obama's moment to be that president.

If Obama delivers a "State of the Climate Address" making clear his commitment to leading the world in the fight against climate change, progressives, rational independents, and moderate Republicans will stand with him. The conservative media industry and Big Oil's hacks will stand against him -- before the moral force of Obama's vision knocks them down.