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December 08, 2010

Going on the Offensive Against Climate Change in the USA

Having just returned to the U.S. from the UN climate negotiations in Cancun, it is apparent to me that the most important work remains to be done right here at home.

The science of climate change tells us that we can wait no longer to take real action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions if we are to avoid the most calamitous consequences of global warming, but for the politicians and the American public the issue barely registers as we wrestle with an enduring economic downturn.

The signs of climate change are everywhere if one just pauses to look around or to read the scientific reports that grow more alarming by the day. One has to wonder how Sarah Palin can get away with denying climate change when her home state is already experiencing the consequences.  Native Alaskans are seeing their fishing villages swallowed up by the sea with the loss of the sea ice that had protected these communities for hundreds if not thousands of years. 

While environmental organizations like the Sierra Club and many others do our best to engage the public on climate change, the aggressive misinformation campaign by the fossil fuel industry dominates the debate.  Clearly, courageous leadership is needed.

Here are this writer's thoughts on what President Obama should do right now to address climate change, to earn his place in the history of humankind and maybe even ensure his re-election in 2012.

  1. Confront the Climate Change issue head on.   President Obama can be a passionate and effective communicator; we saw that in his election campaign. Now he needs to recapture that passion in service to humankind on the issue of climate change.

  2. Take the fight to the skeptics and deniers.  At his State of the Union Address, President Obama needs to have in the audience and recognize from his podium a Native Alaskan, a resident of New Orleans, and one from Hampton Roads, Virginia, (a Republican hotbed of climate skeptics that happens to be the second most vulnerable urban area in our country) and explain their fate to the nation if no action is taken on climate change.  He also needs to recognize from the podium prominent climate scientists like James Hansen and Michael Mann and explain their work in simple terms that all Americans can understand.

  4. Set forth a vision of a safe, clean future.  President Obama must set forth a vision that is the equivalent of Kennedy’s goal of putting a man on the moon in ten years with a plan equal to Harry Truman’s and George C. Marshall’s Marshall Plan to rebuild war torn Europe and Japan.   He can start by encouraging and incentivizing efficiency, solar, wind and sustainable bio-mass on a massive scale and enlisting the nation’s utilities and industries to be a part of the solution rather than part of the problem. 

  5. Acknowledge the leadership role the U.S. must play at the international level. Having the world’s biggest economy and largest military, the U.S. is both admired and feared.  Either way, the world looks to us for leadership, and since the Kyoto Protocol was reached in 1997, the US has been absent from and, more frequently, an obstacle to climate negotiations.  President Obama can use his considerable popularity with people across the globe to rally support for action on climate change by the nations of the world. By the time the world reconvenes these climate talks in Durban, South Africa in 2011, the U.S. could be a constructive force for progress on climate change. But he doesn’t have to wait until then.  In the remaining days of the Cancun talks, President Obama can begin to lay out his strategy and vision for a safe and clean energy future to the American people and to the world.

Will these actions, if taken by President Obama, ensure the success of his presidency or even his re-election in 2012? There is no way to tell.  But is the right thing to do, and it could be the policy initiative that defines his presidency and his place in history.

-- Glen Besa is the Virginia Director of the Sierra Club and a member of the Sierra Club's delegation to the UN Climate Conference in Cancun.  He attended the first week of the climate negotiations and now has returned home to the US to continue the fight for action on climate change by the U.S. Congress and the President. His comments are his own, and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Sierra Club.


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