obama climate change and state of the union

After listening to and reading excerpts from the State of the Union speech by President Obama[1], I was quite disappointed with the energy and climate aspects, to put it mildly. The pattern here of a president talking about the seriousness of the issue and then touting an absurd “all of the above” energy plan that relies on natural gas as a “bridge fuel” is beyond parody.

But appearances to the contrary, I’m not here to criticize the man I proudly voted for, twice, for the highest office in this country.

Instead, I would like to point to a common refrain in his speech, something we’ve heard from countless politicians and environmentalists, in one form or another, for years:

But the debate is settled. Climate change is a fact. (Applause.) And when our children’s children look us in the eye and ask if we did all we could to leave them a safer, more stable world, with new sources of energy, I want us to be able to say yes, we did. (Cheers, applause.)

Can we be brutally honest here for a moment? Can we acknowledge the stark difference between the threat climate change poses to President and Mrs. Obama’s children and the children of the average American family? Does anyone here really think that President Obama and Michelle Obama are staying up late at night worrying about any how any aspect of climate change or energy shortages will directly impact their daughters? Of course not. They have no such worries because they and their daughters and their daughters’ children are guaranteed to be above the climate impact line, the income and influence level needed to insulate them from such terrors.

Someday, when President Obama and Michelle Obama are playing with their grandchildren and horrible climate impacts — floods, droughts, sea level rise, food shortages, etc. — are unfolding on the wall-size TV in the background, prompting those questions about doing enough, what will the President say? I strongly suspect he will think about the obstructionist Congress and say, “It’s one of those complicated adult things, but yes, I did all I could.” And perhaps by then he will actually believe it or at least know not to make immediate eye contact with his wife.

But this notion goes even further than the insulation afforded the children of all elected national politicians and heads of major corporations. For many of those people there’s an incentive, typically some combination of money, power, or ideology, to do things in the short run that actually make the prospects grimmer for those of us and our loved ones below the climate impact like. They have powerful incentives to delay taking action on climate change or keep selling carbon-spewing technologies and fuels, and they have no personal disincentives to stop them.

In the coldest possible calculus, they are willing to sell the future pain of your children for their immediate gain.

That’s one hell of an accusation, isn’t it? But I can prove that’s exactly what’s going on: These “leaders” in politics and business are doing it as we speak. There’s not a single national politician in the US or head of a major corporation that doesn’t know how bad climate change is and couldn’t find out in a single phone call. One of their most important shields against doing what we need and what they don’t want to do is every politician’s favorite: plausible deniability.[2]

Put another way, it’s not the climate impact line, but a climate impact wedge that pushes the wealthy and powerful up as it pushes the rest of us down.

How do we break that wedge? How do we get our leaders to actually lead on this critical topic? By the use of sheer, non-violent power. That means boycotting corporations, casting more informed and more activist votes in elections. And above all else, it means getting off our damn couches and taking action — educating ourselves, reaching out to others to bring them into the fight, and organizing politically.

Because the current mess we see in public policy in the US, the UK, Canada, Australia, and other places, will continue exactly as long as we let it, and it’s already gone on too bloody long.


[1] Please excuse me for linking to the speech on a news site instead of the whitehouse.gov site; I couldn’t find it on the latter.

[2] And please do not try to make the argument that they somehow might not know. That’s one of the most ridiculous things I hear people on “our side” of this issue say on a regular basis.

Photo Credit: Obama and Climate Change/shutterstock