I write this as Americans celebrate the signing of the Declaration of Independence, with its majestic opening: “When in the course of human events…” As we recall the 150th anniversary of a battle that inspired Lincoln’s words about a war “testing whether that nation, or any nation … can long endure.” With the ringing phrases of President Kennedy’s inaugural address in my mind: “We will pay any price, bear any burden...”
Presidents don’t talk like that anymore -- ringing oratory belongs to a long-vanished, less cynical era. But that doesn’t mean America’s great moral challenges have gone away. Far from.
President Obama gave a speech of his own last week. About enacting carbon pollution standards for power plants. Ending funding for new coal-burning power plants overseas. Building enough new wind and solar installations to power millions of homes. And preparing for the inevitable impacts of climate disruption we can no longer avoid.
Promises of carbon rules for power plants and solar panels on public housing may not rank alongside Churchill’s “We shall fight them on the beaches…." Talk of new appliance standards may not inspire a generation in the way Kennedy’s pledge to put an American on the moon once did. We face a different kind of struggle. As President Obama himself noted, “The challenge [of cutting carbon pollution] will not reward us with a clear moment of victory. There’s no gathering army to defeat. There's no peace treaty to sign.”
But make no mistake. Getting standards that will slash carbon pollution from power plants matters enormously. Power plants are the largest concentrated source of greenhouse gas emissions, and Sierra Club has led the fight to end industry’s free ride.
President Obama’s pledge to judge the Keystone XL pipeline on its climate impacts matters -- so long as he understands those impacts and follows through. We’ll keep pressing to see that he does. It wasn’t the climate plan we’d have written, but the President’s proposals for near-term, achievable actions give real grounds for hope.
That the steps President Obama proposed are entirely within his powers is good, because that makes them doable. That he needs to rely entirely on executive actions is a damning indictment of those in Congress and elsewhere who would, in the President’s words at Georgetown, “condemn your generation and future generations to a planet that's beyond fixing."
No caring nation would do that, and we are a caring nation -- albeit one with badly broken institutions. But just as surely as Lincoln’s America did, we face a test – literally a test of whether our democratic institutions can still function.
President Kennedy ended his inaugural with the ringing lines “Now the trumpet summons us again… with a call to bear the burden of a long twilight struggle….” In confronting those who would block action on climate, we face a long twilight struggle of our own.
President Obama’s climate plan would move us forward in that struggle, with steps he can take within his authority. We don’t agree with everything he proposed, such as expanded roles for natural gas and funding for nuclear energy. But he proposed many actions we have urged him to take for years now.
We’ll keep supporting him in the fights ahead over power plant standards and other measures that will actually move the needle on cutting carbon. And I know we’ll ardently and thoughtfully press for more, as well we should.