Obama kept most of his inaugural speech focused on the now and couched in the language of the past; his words were draped in typical Founding mythology and fiery Puritanical bombast. All presidents speechify like this, and Obama does it better than most.
On one of the few occasions that he did veer into the future, Obama applied some of that historically-infused, fire-and-brimstone-laden language to the threat of climate change:
“We, the people, still believe that our obligations as Americans are not just to ourselves, but to all posterity. We will respond to the threat of climate change, knowing that the failure to do so would betray our children and future generations. 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.
The path towards sustainable energy sources will be long and sometimes difficult. But America cannot resist this transition; we must lead it. We cannot cede to other nations the technology that will power new jobs and new industries – we must claim its promise. That’s how we will maintain our economic vitality and our national treasure – our forests and waterways; our croplands and snowcapped peaks. That is how we will preserve our planet, commanded to our care by God. That’s what will lend meaning to the creed our fathers once declared.”
It was enough to lead longtime Obama critic and Climate Progress mastermind Joe Romm to remark, “These are, I believe, his longest and strongest remarks on the subject in any major national speech, let alone one of this import.”
And note the tension between the religious and historical underpinnings and the urgent conveyance of modern science and industrial imperatives.
“We the people,” must embark on a “path towards sustainable energy sources” and we cannot “cede to other nations the technology that will power new jobs and new industries.” Yes, “that is how we will preserve our planet, commanded to our care by God.” While “some would deny the overwhelming judgment of science,” they are the ones who “would betray our children.”
It’s the quest for a zero carbon energy economy framed as a Christian crusade circa 1776.
And who knows? Maybe it works—nothing else this side of Hurricane Sandy has had any luck hammering climate concerns into the national discourse. Certainly not the parade of dire scientific reports that outline the ever-increasing amount of danger climate change poses to human civilization. So if implying that Baby Jesus wants us to fight global warming and Ben Franklin would go solar to do it makes the climate predicament more memorable, by all means, let’s have it.
Aside from the biblical climate talk, though, Obama now has to match actions to words. He’s talked a pretty game about climate and clean energy before—throughout most of his first election campaign and first term, in fact—but has yet to accomplish any truly momentous reforms.
In his 2012 acceptance speech, he warned that the nation was “threatened by the power of a warming planet.” The year before that, he called for a “Sputnik moment” for clean energy. When he was first elected, he famously remarked that it would be remembered as the “moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow, and our planet began to heal."
And so far? Some solid emissions standards on cars and plenty of stimulus cash thrown at green research and development programs. And he’s allowed the EPA to follow its mandate to better regulate pollution. All of which are clearly positive developments. They’re just nowhere near commensurate with the scale of the climatic problem we’re facing. They’re baby steps.
Of course, there’s only so much Obama can do whilst opposed by a viciously partisan Congress that is currently inhabited half by stubborn dogmatic egoists who trust that feelin’ in their gut that those scientists are making all that global warming stuff up. They defeated the moderate climate bill that reached the Senate in 2010, and they’ve stymied any effort to make progress on the front since.
So the president’s options are limited, since a big climate bill is pretty much out of the question. He can issue executive orders demanding energy efficiency and more renewable energy ( like this one). But those are toothless, insufficient. He can use the bully pulpit—and some of that loaded language from the Inauguration—to shame the GOP for failing to address what is beginning to be seen more widely as a moral issue. He can, if the economy picks up and gives him enough cover, tell the EPA to start regulating greenhouse gases, which the Supreme Court has mandated it to do. He could even, if he were bold enough, mobilize the EPA to essentially phase out coal power altogether. And he could do that without Congress.
But he also has to make some tough, potentially unpopular decisions. He must deny the Keystone XL pipeline’s permit on the grounds that it would ignite a carbon bomb. He must push for tougher regulation on the natural gas industry, which is undergoing a boom thanks to fracking right now, and is needlessly emitting pollution all over the place during the process.
If he fails to do those two things, and fails to make a concerted effort to address climate through one of the avenues outlined above, the fears of the skeptics out there will be confirmed: that the president likes to talk tough, but won’t risk politically difficult action on climate. Then again, his re-election victory, combined with a legacy that’s lurching into ever-greater focus in the rearview, could motivate the president to stand up and lead the nation on a quest to combat climate change. A quest, of course, of Biblical proportions. Maybe in his next speech we'll get something like:
Four score and seven years hence, let God smile down upon America and say, you hath done it: you have banished the demon Coal and nigh completed the transition to a prosperous clean energy economy replete with wind farms and smart grid technology.