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October 2014 • Online Edition
 

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Some Topics Are Too Important For Idle Words | Print |  E-mail

by Paul Kashmann

As I listened to Barack Obama’s much touted speech on the day of his second inauguration, I was heartened by his passionate commitment to direct America’s best minds and best resources to combat climate change.

He pledged to make it his top priority to do everything possible to bring our nation and our planet back from the brink of a disaster that, left unchallenged, could alter life on this third rock from the sun to an extent for which none of us is truly prepared.

“We will respond to the threat of climate change, knowing that failure to do so would betray our children and future generations,” the president declared. Chiding those who still doubt the reality of the problem, he said, “Some may still deny the overwhelming judgment of science, but none can avoid the devastating impact of raging fires, and crippling drought, and more powerful storms.” He concluded his thoughts with a promise that although “The path towards sustainable energy sources will be long and sometimes difficult ... America cannot resist this transition; we must lead it.”

Pundits made much of the fact that POTUS devoted eight full sentences to the topic of climate change – more than any other topic he addressed. But even as I was heartened, I wondered: “Where in the hell has that passion been for the last four years?” How does this long-awaited initiative – still in a formative stage – square with the fact that neither climate change, alternative energy nor any other environmental issue has gotten much more than 15 minutes of time from the presidential bully pulpit over the last four years.

The president has refused to sign the Kyoto Protocol that would limit the worldwide release of greenhouse gases, and allowed the Keystone Pipeline project to move forward in its effort to bring oil from the Canadian tar sands across the midwestern United States to refineries along the Gulf Coast of Texas in spite of considerable outcry from the environmental community, as well as farmers, ranchers, and others intimately involved with the land, the waters, and their well-being.

Mr. Obama’s staffers insist that his heart has always been in the right camp, but it has taken him a while to realize that the conservative element in Congress has no interest in assisting a Democratic administration in reaching any goals, no less ones that they view as conflicting with deep-seated, core values – like freedom from regulation.

While I understand the concern that by its nature, adhering to government regulation can put added pressure on a company’s bottom line, I wonder how those who eschew environmental regulation plan on restructuring and relocating when Colorado has no snow, hundreds of miles of our coastline end up under water and Kansas can’t grow wheat because it just doesn’t rain there anymore.

In 2009, at his first inaugural, the president made bold promises as well. “We will harness the sun and the winds and the soil to fuel our cars and run our factories,” he proclaimed. “With old friends and former foes, we will work tirelessly to ... roll back the specter of a warming planet.”

Needless to say, that specter has not only not been rolled back, it is rolling forward at an alarming rate. The last 12 months have been the warmest on record for the United States, manifesting in a continuing series of wildfires, a lack of precipitation that had 61.1 percent of the nation in the throes of drought at year’s end, and ever more violent storms wreaking havoc on our perimeter.

If we are to believe White House aides, the president plans an end run around the naysayers in Congress, and will put forth a series of executive actions that will enable him to take action on environmental issues without fighting a war that can’t be won in Congress. We look forward to his efforts to reduce coal plant emissions, increase energy efficiency standards for homes and businesses, and instruct government agencies to green up their game, and walk the walk as well.

Peter Sawtell, executive director of the local Eco-Justice Ministries, wrote recently that Obama not only needs to say “yes” to moving forward with new technologies, but he needs to say “no” to the ways of the past.

“He said ‘yes’ to wind turbines and solar panels, but he did not say ‘no’ to coal and tar sands,” said Sawtell. “We do need to do lots of work on developing sustainable energy sources, but if we do not cut back on unsustainable and highly polluting energy, then the crisis will not be addressed. If horrors like the tar sands are not rejected, then -- in the words of climate scientist James Hansen -- it is ‘game over’ for the global climate.”

Of course, the opposition has already begun to fire salvo after salvo at the White House, even before specifics have even been put forth. Tim Phillips, president of Americans for Prosperity, a group financed by the ultra-conservative billionaire Koch brothers, insisted that the president’s speech “read like a liberal laundry list with global warming at the top. Americans have rejected environmental extremism in the past and they will again.”

The most important thing that Barack Obama can do is to sound the battle cry and summon the troops. He must unapologetically challenge those who would stand in the way of what must be an environmental initiative equivalent to the New Deal in its commitment to righting the ship of state, but far greater in scope. Regardless of our national financial issues, we remain the most powerful of nations in our place within the international community. We must – as the president promises – lead the way toward climate relief, not muddy the waters and obstruct the progress that is so clearly needed.

My desire is not to see our economy hobbled, or the business community dealt any additional challenges than they are already facing in these difficult times. It’s just that while I’ve always enjoyed the music from a good fiddle, I’m smelling smoke, and I think it’s time we change our tune. This time it could be a whole lot more than Rome that burns.

 
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