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What If Your President’s Just Not That Into You?

Bill McKibben: The changing climate isn’t going to wait for Obama’s little-bit-at-a-time approach.

Obama Climate, photo by Steve Rhodes

Chioke Bakari from Oakland, California: "We are too big to fail."

Photo by Steve Rhodes.

Tomorrow in Washington, at the sprawling and wonderful Power Shift, a few of us are on a panel titled "What If Your President's Just Not That Into You?" Funny title, serious question.

The first thing: those of us in the environmental movement aren't high school sophomores feeling jilted by their first crush. Most of us liked Obama a lot: I was among the first green leaders to join up on 'Environmentalists for Obama,' back when he seemed a longshot. It wasn't because I thought he would solve every problem; it's because I thought he'd make climate change one of the top two priorities of his presidency. And he thought so too: on the day in June of 2008 when he finally clinched the nomination he said that people would someday look back and say "this was the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal."

And it's not that we don't appreciate what he has done. He's been far better than George Bush (even if that is a little like saying 'I drink more beer than my ten-year-old niece.") We have higher gas mileage standards; the stimulus package funded plenty of green projects; at least some of the most egregious mountaintop removal mining practices are being regulated. All good.

Climate change, above all issues, requires a transformative and not an incremental vision.

But when the political going got a little tough, Obama didn't. By all accounts he watched from the sidelines as the cap-and-trade law went down to defeat last summer. He famously allowed vast new leases for offshore oil drilling weeks before the BP explosion. In the last couple of weeks, the administration has ably defended the Clean Air Act against ham-handed Congressional assault. But they've also done two things really beyond the pale:

  • Opened 750 million tons of coal beneath federal land in Wyoming to mining. It makes one wonder if the president has really understood his climate science briefings: any hope of warding off global warming depends on keeping that carbon in the ground. Had this happened under Bush, it would have caused real outrage—when burned, that coal will give off as much co2 as opening 300 new coal-fired power plants and running them for a year.
Reality reality trumps political reality—unless the president shows some powerful leadership soon we're going to lose this fight.
  • Walked away from the global climate talks. His chief negotiator, Todd Stern, gave a little-noticed interview to Bloomberg News earlier this month. He said a global climate pact was "not doable" and "unworkable." He added that "legally binding international obligations to cut emissions are not necessary," because individual nations could make their own pledges. This was pretty much the Bush administration formula, and it is amazing to hear it coming from Obama's officials. If they stick to it (and other countries follow their lead), there is no hope of dealing with global warming in time; it really will be the death knell of effective action.   

Mexican forest, photo by Lara DanielleRewriting the "Tragedy of the Commons"
Bill McKibben: We've been privatizing our way to disaster. It's time to chart a new course.

And it underscores the reason that many of us are left wondering how to deal with the president. Climate change, above all issues, requires a transformative and not an incremental vision. We have fundamental change to make, and a very short window to make it in—Obama's typical (and often quite savvy) little-bit-at-a-time approach doesn't square with the physics and chemistry that govern this debate.

It's that physics and chemistry that really trouble me. I understand political reality, and I'm glad I don't have Obama's job; it's tough. But I know that reality reality trumps political reality—I know that unless he shows some powerful leadership soon we're going to lose this fight. At which point the question of who's president will be less important.


Bill McKibben authorBill McKibben is a YES! Magazine contributing editor, founder of 350.org and the author, most recently, of Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet. The Boston Globe called him “probably the country’s leading environmentalist” and Time described him as “the planet’s best green journalist.” He’s a scholar in residence at Middlebury College.

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