Finally, Some Sanity on Climate Change

June 27th, 2013

June 25, 2013: A great deal of what Obama just said on climate change at Georgetown University will seem like common sense to many of us, so it’s important to recognize just how dramatic a shift in the public conversation it is likely to cause.

Several distinct concepts were introduced and reinforced in the speech, most notably that of “carbon pollution,” which is clearly more emotionally and politically powerful than “greenhouse gas emissions.” By calling it (some might say “calling it out as”) carbon pollution more than a dozen times during the speech, he laid the groundwork for a comprehensive approach to the challenge of climate change as a priority for the U.S. and for the rest of the world — including placing the U.S., now second in the world as a carbon emitter to China, at the head of the line in addressing the problems.

Indeed, he noted that developing countries have the most to lose from climate change. While the U.S. is better equipped to adapt and resist the effects of climate change, the rest of the world is at greater risk at the very moment when it’s beginning to add to the problem. What’s needed is leadership in technology, in policy, and in investment to — as Obama put it — “tap the brakes in order to slow down and eventually reverse course” on carbon pollution.

Here’s Obama’s new Climate Action Plan, and a remarkable graphic presentation of the facts, ideas, issues, and policies that the Action Plan puts in place.

This is, in my view, a significant turning point; and the one for which Obama will rightly be most remembered, amongst his many other remarkable accomplishments. (Not, it might be said, without a few stumbles along the way; but in the long run these will seem insignificant by comparison with winding down two wars and staying out of several others, reforming health care, raising taxes however modestly on the rich, and approving a path to citizenship for millions of undocumented Americans.) Of course, it is also one on which he will get mercilessly attacked; but he seems to be capable of prevailing in this as in other areas, in part by obtaining the support of the emerging generation as well as our own.

In “The 5 Most Interesting Pieces of Obama’s New Climate Plan,” Stephen Lacey of Greentech Media lists the most important new elements of the plan:

  1. Doubling renewable energy by 2020
  2. Establishing strong new goals for energy efficiency
  3. Launching a climate data initiative
  4. Stopping the public financing of international coal projects
  5. Potentially avoiding construction of Keystone XL

See for the complete article.

Others, such as Fred Krupp of EDF, have also lauded the plan: see; and several (including Lynn Thorp of Clean Water Action) picked up on some of Obama’s blunt rebukes to the anti-global-warming crowd, including his comment that we don’t have time for “a meeting of the Flat Earth Society.” What some may have missed, because it went by so fast, was the President’s call to “divest” (a clear reference to‘s campaign to get universities and pension funds to take fossil fuel companies out of their portfolios):

Understand this is not just a job for politicians.  So I’m going to need all of you to educate your classmates, your colleagues, your parents, your friends.  Tell them what’s at stake.  Speak up at town halls, church groups, PTA meetings.  Push back on misinformation.  Speak up for the facts.  Broaden the circle of those who are willing to stand up for our future.  (Applause.)

Convince those in power to reduce our carbon pollution.  Push your own communities to adopt smarter practices.  Invest.  Divest.  (Applause.)  Remind folks there’s no contradiction between a sound environment and strong economic growth.  And remind everyone who represents you at every level of government that sheltering future generations against the ravages of climate change is a prerequisite for your vote.  Make yourself heard on this issue.  (Applause.)

I understand the politics will be tough.  The challenge we must accept will not reward us with a clear moment of victory.  There’s no gathering army to defeat.  There’s no peace treaty to sign.  When President Kennedy said we’d go to the moon within the decade, we knew we’d build a spaceship and we’d meet the goal.  Our progress here will be measured differently — in crises averted, in a planet preserved.  But can we imagine a more worthy goal?  For while we may not live to see the full realization of our ambition, we will have the satisfaction of knowing that the world we leave to our children will be better off for what we did.

More to come: more commentary, and now that we have it, here’s a link to the video and the full transcript here.

(Reprinted from

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