A week ago, Barack Obama addressed the nation that had just elected him the 44th President of the United States. When he named America’s greatest challenges, “a planet in peril” was a centerpiece. After the Bush administration’s eight-year war on our air, oceans, and wildlife, concerned citizens everywhere had justified reason to celebrate, feeling that they too had possibly won a great victory that night.
Two days later, Obama returned calls from nine presidents and prime ministers. Accounts of these conversations made world news, with many reports highlighting that climate change had served as a dominant theme. The sudden emphasis places the President-elect in complete contrast to his predecessor, who repeatedly ranked the environment last, or close to it, in his decision-making decision process.
In fact, Obama made it clear throughout his campaign that climate change would be a paramount issue under his administration. He set a goal to reduce the country’s greenhouse gas emissions to 1990 levels by 2020 and by 80 percent by 2050, through a cap-and-trade bill that would set a limit on the amount of pollution allowed. Auctioned permits could be bought and sold between those who cut back on carbon emissions and others struggling to meet their quotas. It’s a flexible, cost-effective system that provides incentives to move toward cleaner energies. Additionally, revenue from the permit auction would fund the research and development of renewable alternatives.
But let's be realistic: Past climate bills have failed mainly due to predictable attacks claiming they would damage the economy. This has been in the Republican playbook forever, and codified in the infamous Luntz memo.
Such attacks will be louder now than ever; and yet at the same time, the Congress is also more favorable than ever to change, and the momentum is immense. President Obama can finally succeed on climate policy, then, and every indicator thus far is that he will try to do so.
The central caveat here is that it's not clear how the administration will move first, although the economy and energy are known to be the top two priorities, in that order. That's why we can expect, on climate change, to see Obama focus on a single defining message: The bill will advance–not hinder–national economic interests.
This isn't a novel argument: We've already come a long way towards redefining global warming in the public mindset as an economic and national security issue. As Al Gore explained in Sunday’s New York Times, “the bold steps that are needed to solve the climate crisis are exactly the same steps that ought to be taken in order to solve the economic crisis and the energy security crisis.” And Obama has already outlined an energy plan that would create five million new “green collar” jobs to replace “blue collar” jobs lost.
In fact, we probably shouldn't expect Obama to act on a global warming bill without simultaneously having a positive piece of legislation to put forward on the “green jobs” front–or to bundle them together in the same bill or legislative sweep.
But even then, that would be only half of the task at best. The second critical step will be to work with the international community. We need to pass a domestic climate bill at home, unleash renewable energy investments, and then take that momentum to Copenhagen, Denmark, in late 2009 where the next generation of Kyoto will be negotiated.
It's an incredibly tall order to accomplish all of this in a year, which is why we must remember that Barack Obama’s victory is not, itself, synonymous with the change we need. Instead, it’s provides the hope of change that we must now work together to achieve.
When Obama spoke in Grant Park, he acknowledged change will require citizens to embrace “a new spirit of service, a new spirit of sacrifice…a new spirit of patriotism, of responsibility, where each of us resolves to pitch in and work harder and look after not only ourselves but each other.” Indeed, this will be the only way to enact sound climate policy. If we succeed, it will through a great, global collaborative effort.
So above all, now is the time to start pushing, chattering, and arguing about how to get a climate solution that's framed properly and as strong as possible within the realistic constraints of a newly remade (but not infinitely flexible) U.S. politics.
In other words, ask not “Will HE make it happen?” Instead, focus on the answer: “Yes WE Can.”