When President Obama was elected in 2008, I was in my first year of high school. It seemed the whole country was abuzz with hope about this inspirational orator and the possibility of electing the first African-American president. I felt for the first time the irresistible tug of activism and political involvement, and knew that we desperately needed a radical shift from the previous administration and its policies. Obama’s campaign mantras of “Yes We Can,” "Hope," and "Change" called me to action and served as my introduction to the life of an organizer.
The last few days in America have been filled with a number of monumental political bombshells. Some are heartbreaking defeats, especially the Supreme Court ruling on the Voting Rights Act. But others are exciting steps forward for activists and progressives: Court decisions about DOMA and Proposition 8, a 13-hour-long filibuster in Texas to prevent an anti-abortion bill, and a climate action plan. It’s certainly been an exciting week.
For environmental organizers and anyone concerned about the looming threat of climate change, President Obama’s speech on Tuesday marked a critical turning point. After years of failed legislation and stalled environmental progress, President Obama has finally outlined a series of steps - although somewhat limited and with some serious drawbacks - that will hopefully begin to set us on the right path.
In 2008, I did not foresee the disappointing ways in which a gridlocked Congress and President Obama’s approach to partisan politics, which in reality was far from progressive, would play out. But even compared to modest expectations, the President has often fallen short: from failing to close Guantanamo Bay and bailing out big banks while reappointing the top CEOs responsible for the financial meltdown, to ignoring the oversized role of lobbying interests and renewing Bush tax cuts for the wealthy, the list goes on.
After the proposed carbon cap-and-trade legislation failed in 2009 and 2010, the Obama administration’s efforts to enact major environmental reform slowed. Tuesday’s speech, which was filled with surprises that rocked climate change organizers and oil industry CEOs alike, seems to have changed that. Of course, the President’s climate plan is a mixed bag, and contains far too many dismaying endorsements of natural gas and nuclear power expansion. But it was also an important step in the right direction.
Obama’s plan includes a series of executive actions to combat carbon emissions, a transition away from reliance on fossil fuels, and preparation for the inevitable impacts of climate change. He recognized that extreme weather and climate disasters are already upon us, and cited the moral obligation towards future generations that requires us to act now. Obama also acknowledged the health and economic cost of inaction, ranging from the droughts to floods to hurricanes and other extreme weather that cost more than $110 billion and hundreds of deaths in 2012 alone.
While many of the President’s announcements were expected, his statement about the Keystone XL pipeline and his mention of fossil fuel divestment were surprises far beyond what most had hoped for. After months of delays and silence surrounding KXL, Obama declared that he would only approve the pipeline if it does not “significantly exacerbate the problem of carbon pollution.” This statement was a highly calculated one and does leave him some options, so the climate movement must be on his back to ensure that he follows through. However, if Obama accepts the overwhelming scientific evidence that the carbon emissions from developing Canada’s tar sands would be “game over for the climate,” then this new criterion effectively guarantees that he must reject it.
But where did these surprises come from? The climate change movement should get a lot of the credit for pushing the President to move past wishy-washy stances and break his years of climate silence. In recent months, tens of thousands of people have mobilized to join fossil fuel divestment campaigns, organize in their communities, rally in the streets, be arrested for the sake of the environment, and demonstrate that we are serious about climate action. This grassroots uprising has provided the President with the courage to finally take a stand.
In the coming months President Obama must do much more, and so must we. The plans announced this week are a start, but they ignore the plight of communities suffering from fracking contamination and the threat of nuclear energy. A full-fledged rejection of the Keystone XL pipeline and a transition away from fossil fuels are necessary actions that need to happen soon.
We saw glimpses of the passionate visionary who ran for office in 2008 during Tuesday’s speech, and it brought alive again the inspiration I felt five years ago. The drive to be involved and to organize is stronger than ever. This climate movement is growing daily, and we will continue to mobilize the country until Obama has no choice but to do the right thing.