11/26/2012 07:06 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Barack Obama Should Rise to the Challenge on Climate Change

During the second presidential debate, Governor Romney and President Obama competed for the coronation in the Kingdom of Coal, arguing over who would drill more, lay more pipe, and frack America back to prosperity. Now, in the wake of Superstorm Sandy and Obama's reelection, the political climate suddenly seems quite different. People are asking: "Whatever happened to that climate bill?"

What if, back in 2009, Obama had followed in President Kennedy's footsteps and made a moonshot speech about the climate, pledging to make the U.S. the world's first carbon-neutral country within 10 years?

What if he did that right now?

In a way, this fantasy scenario did take place in the tiny island nation of The Maldives. In 2008, the civil-right activist Mohamed Nasheed became the first elected leader of the Maldives in 30 years, swept into office by the nation's youth. With a professional wife, two young girls and a community organizer's credibility -- sound familiar? -- the charismatic Nasheed took office on a wave of extraordinary hope.

In early 2009, Nasheed pledged that the Maldives would become the first carbon neutral country on the planet.

The Maldives, a nation of 1,200 tiny pancake islands in the Indian Ocean, is considered among the most vulnerable to rising sea levels resulting from increased carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Its average elevation is five feet. There are no hills. It is likely that the sea will eventually overtake the islands.

Poignantly, Manhattan, as President Nasheed has pointed out, is as close to sea level as the Maldivian capital, Malé.

Years before Hurricane Sandy, President Nasheed of The Maldives warned that Manhattan is highly vulnerable to the effects of climate change. Excerpt from the documentary The Island President now available on DVD, iTunes, Amazon.

In The Island President, the documentary that I directed about his first year in office, Nasheed makes improbable impact at the UN 2009 Copenhagen talks. In part because of this one man's compelling voice, the U.S., India, and China agreed there for the first time that something must be done about global warming. Back home, his adversaries were less amenable. Just as our film was being released and Nasheed was beginning to implement his carbon neutral plan, he was deposed by loyalists to the former dictator with backing from the country's largest oil importer and resort owner.

The U.S. has a very different political situation, of course, but no less entrenched interests that will fight bitterly for the status quo. What will Obama do? Will he seize the moment created by Sandy and build on the climatic warnings voiced by Mayor Bloomberg and Governor's Cuomo and Christie? If he does seek a climate moonshot, how will America's power elite and oil tycoons react?

Of course, the equally important question is, What if Obama doesn't take up the challenge? The planet's fever is rising. Of this there is no doubt. Superstorm Sandy was a merely warning shot. Obama's legacy will largely be determined by whether the U.S. can effect meaningful change now or stands by and maintains the status quo.

Jon Shenk is a documentary filmmaker whose films include Lost Boys of Sudan, The Rape of Europa, and The Island President.