Why Obama’s Climate Inaugural Matters

When Barack Obama came to office, in 2009, the mood among climate activists and environmental groups was what many would describe as buoyant. Obama was clearly a pragmatist, but had also spoken eloquently and emotionally about the urgency of the mounting global climate crisis, and the need to take action so that the oceans would begin to recede.

Obstruction, and the brutal political struggle to pass other initiatives, along with hyper-complexity and inconsistent salesmanship, sidelined the cap and trade bill, and climate policy was left to languish. The world community watched, and waited, and while citizen activists ramped up efforts to move Congress to action, the administration was limited to using Recovery Act funds, the auto industry bailout, Supreme Court mandated EPA emissions enforcement and aggressive new CAFE standards for vehicles, to fight the good fight.

Towns and cities began taking votes in record numbers to pass resolutions supporting comprehensive action to reduce carbon dioxide emissions and accelerate the transition to clean, renewable fuels. Still, Congress let the issue languish on the margins, and the administration appeared to be more focused on the practical challenges of some very difficult problems, and the incremental means listed above.

The movement to build full-spectrum sustainable communities in small towns, across whole counties and in major cities, gathered momentum in part because it was becoming increasingly evident that we would soon pass some very dire “tipping points” in the unraveling of the climate patterns that have prevailed throughout all of human history.

On October 29, 2012, when the hybrid tropical-Arctic-plains-based North Atlantic “superstorm” known as Sandy made landfall in New York City, the sea levels in lower Manhattan were reported to be fully 9 inches above normal historic tidal levels, before the surge. The record flooding crippled the city’s transit network and a staffer for Gov. Andrew Cuomo posted a photograph online of flood waters literally chasing the governor’s car down 1st Avenue.

Since 2005, every year has seen a major climate-induced crop failure on at least one continent, and three of those years have seen droughts that have threatened the economic viability of the entire global food supply. The United Nations is now fully engaged in planning for adaptation, not merely mitigation, and multiple island nations have initiated permanent evacuation plans, in case no other option is available.

Pres. Obama will not run for office again. It is unlikely, despite his relatively young age, that he will return to Congress. His 2nd inaugural address may mark a watershed moment in American political history, and in apparent recognition of that historic weight, he used the occasion to put his considerable political muscle behind major and necessary reforms.

By declaring that the United States “will confront the threat of climate change and that failure to do so would betray our children and future generations”, Pres. Obama made clear that the force of his legacy years will be put into solving the most comprehensive threat civilization has faced, and that he expects Congress to come together to support responsible action.

Here is the key: Republicans need to find a way to get behind legislative action to reduce carbon dioxide emissions. In conversations with staunch Republican supporters of the carbon-based fuel industries (oil, natural gas and coal), on Capitol Hill, it has become evident that a clear policy that favors business and innovation, diversification in their home states and regions, new employment and a workable transition for carbon-dependent industries, is what it will take.

Enter Carbon Fee and Dividend, which may also be described as a carbon correction fee, with 100% household revenue return. The plan would put a steadily increasing fee on carbon-based fuels, at the point where they enter the economy, then return 100% of that revenue to American households.

This arrangement allows the solution to span the entire marketplace, giving families, small businesses and individual consumers more and better options, without adding to the burden of rising energy costs. A border adjustment would ensure that American businesses are not disadvantaged as against businesses from nations without a carbon pricing plan, and the border adjustment would give nations like China and India incentive to institute such a plan themselves.

This solution is virtually required at this moment in history, when Pres. Obama is aiming to take comprehensive action on climate and energy policy, and the Congress is likely to be focused on powerful interests entrenched in the status quo. And why does this matter to us, in New York City, along the Florida coast, in the Great Smoky Mountains or on the Kansas plains?

Because it will provide us with a solution to a problem that is eroding the foundations of our food supply system, undermining the stability of political boundaries across the world, threatening to impoverish billions of people not currently living in poverty, and it will do this in a way that is constructive and opportunity-generative for most Americans.

To achieve a genuine full-spectrum sustainable state of affairs in a metropolis that lives and breathes on the scale of New York City, some significant policy reforms will need to go through, to facilitate and to economize the process of innovation, upgrade and deployment. If Congress passes Carbon Fee and Dividend, Pres. Obama’s words will resonate across the world, and the democracy we celebrate will be more real and more secure than ever.

The United States is responding to this threat; the world needs to come together, to move into a better future, now. That will be the message; that will be the climate in which we talk about climate; that will be the spirit that motivates an economy-wide transition to fully clean energy resources. And those resources will give us a vastly improved quality of life, close to home, along with new opportunities to build resiliency into the fabric of our democracy.

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Originally published January 25, 2013, at FreeClearNYC.com

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