17 march 2009

Mr. President, it is time for a speech on climate change

Commentary by Jeremy Hance,, March 17, 2009

Now that Barack Obama has been president for nearly two months, it is time for him to give a defining speech on climate change. While Obama has spent most of his time on what the majority of Americans consider the most pressing issue—the economy—he has proven himself adept at juggling the economy with other vital issues.

A fact-based speech on climate change would accomplish several goals. First, by using his unique position in the world, Barack Obama could directly impact the debate on climate change, which has spent far too many decades stuck in the scientific consensus vs. denialism and not discussing what should—and must—be done to address what the majority of scientists consider a clear and growing threat. With his unique gift of explaining complicated issues clearly, President Obama needs to tell a confused and conflicted American public what climate change is, the threats it poses, and what should be done based on current scientific consensus. This he can do with input from his excellent team of science advisors. As well, the President must not ignore those who continue to doubt, but address how they are mistaken. With clear and concise language the President can address where scientists see uncertainty in climate change predictions—and where they don't.

For too long climate change has been ignored, belittled, or misunderstood by the American media which in turn has spread their ignorance to the American public. Even as the evidence becomes clearer and more overwhelming, and the urgency grows, the American media still dithers. For example, George Will of the Washington Post can still write an op-ed full of misinformation and cherry-picking on climate change that the Washington Post continually defends even after Will’s ‘facts’ have been debunked time and again by the scientific community.

In the opposite direction the media sometimes will take a single outlying study and tout it as scientific consensus, providing denialists with ammunition to seize upon and say ‘here, it’s all a lie!’. The one thing the media has avoided is sober analysis. The continual spread of misinformation has its effect: a recent Gallup polll showed that more Americans than ever believe global warming is exaggerated.

With a clear and definitive speech, President Obama has the power to change the conversation on air, shame those media outlets that have remained willfully ignorant, and move America forward.

In his speech, Barack Obama would need to highlight how his stimulus plan will aid America in moving toward a more sustainable future and why congress must act soon with cap-and-trade legislation. He can make his case as to why a cap-and-trade program is not choosing the environment over the economy, but how such legislation will be beneficial to both in the long run.

President Obama’s speech would also send the clearest signal yet to the world that America is finished denying, stalling, and essentially doing nothing about climate change. There is little question that such a speech would be welcomed worldwide, but more importantly it could have a large affect on negotiations in Copenhagen in December on a new global treaty against climate change—perhaps our last and best chance to truly tackle the issue.

Finally, President Obama should use his speech as a moment to reach out to Americans to make changes in their daily lives in order to contribute to the government’s work in mitigating climate change. Having proven himself a bold and popular president, who unlike most politicians, walks the walk: in less than two months he has passed a massive stimulus bill against opposition and doubt, banned torture, set new ethics rules on the executive branch, expanded health care for children, ordered new rules for car emission standards, and overturned a ban on stem cell research. In addition to concrete actions President Obama has the unique capacity to inspire people to make changes and sacrifices in their own life. He can give concrete examples of effective ways of curbing one's energy use and living a more sustainable life. Obama needs to hand a portion of the power and responsibility over to the people of America for their own high-carbon lifestyles, while highlighting that Americans have risen to great and difficult tasks in the past, and we must do so again.

Barack Obama is a rare president with the ability to inspire millions to take action. His special clout with my generation, those in their 20s and 30s, who see in him an embodiment of their own potential, is particularly important, since they will be the ones inheriting what the baby boomers have left behind.

By being up-front now both about the consequences of climate change and what can be done –by nations and individuals—to mitigate it, Barack Obama will be remembered for being the first American President to boldly lay before the American people the choices on the table. His courage to do so, just seven weeks into his first term amidst a financial crisis, will not be forgotten.

Scientists are increasingly clear that large-scale action to reduce CO2 emissions can wait no longer. Through stalling we have reached a crisis point that must be addressed for the wellbeing of ourselves, our children, and our grandchildren. It is the President's responsibility to address the nation now and not pass on the task like his predecessors.

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