Last fall, during a grueling hike out of the Glacier Peak Wilderness with my son Alex, I found myself riffing on Abraham Lincoln to distract both of us from the numbing pain in our legs. We had been driven from the high flanks of Glacier Peak by an intense early blizzard in September, and were running on fumes near the end of our fifteen-mile hike back out to the trailhead. I had Alex as a captive audience when I got going about my admiration for Lincoln as the hinge person of his extraordinary times. And with a looming presidential election, I wanted Alex to know why I thought this election mattered so profoundly, and why I thought President Obama still had a chance to become a great president, possibly even on the order of Abraham Lincoln.
If slavery was Lincoln's crucible, climate change is rapidly emerging as the great moral crisis of our era. Lincoln chose to enter his second term by facing directly into the political storm of the 13th Amendment, seeking to bring a legislative end to slavery once and for all. He did so against powerful resistance from both his opponents in Congress and his own cabinet. He risked the hard-won legacy of his presidency on a cause that seemed to his advisors doomed to fail. Such a failure by Lincoln to meet this "inflection point in history" likely would have kept the slavery question festering far into Reconstruction, even after the Confederate surrender. And if that effort had failed, we might not still be making blockbuster movies on his presidency a century and a half later.
But Obama's historical crucible may prove even greater, the stakes even higher, and he may need to become our "New Abolitionist" in chief to move the dial forward on climate action.
Denis Hayes, who oversaw the first Earth Day event in 1970, argued this week in Crosscut.com that, "While economic prosperity and domestic tranquility are vital to winning elections, no federal monuments will be built to honor the fiscal stimulus package or Obamacare. The stature awarded President Obama by future historians will be very largely determined by his response to one issue: climate disruption." If Obama is to rise with Lincoln from "Good" to "Great", he must meet his own historic inflection point with a similarly fierce resolution.
The State of the Union Address this week gave further evidence that Obama is beginning to rise to that challenge. He has clearly stepped out of the shadows on the climate crisis, signaling the beginning of a much more forthright effort by his administration to meet this historical challenge. Here are some prominent statements on climate from his second term's opening State of the Union Address last Tuesday:
"For the sake of our children and our future, we must do more to combat climate change. Yes, it's true that no single event makes a trend. But the fact is, the 12 hottest years on record have all come in the last 15. Heat waves, droughts, wildfires, and floods - all are now more frequent and intense. We can choose to believe that Superstorm Sandy and the most severe drought in decades, and the worst wildfires some states have ever seen were all just a freak coincidence. Or we can choose to believe in the overwhelming judgment of science - and act before it is too late."
He goes on to say,
"if Congress won't act soon to protect future generations, I will. I will direct my Cabinet to come up with executive actions we can take, now and in the future, to reduce pollution, prepare our communities for the consequences of climate change, and speed the transition to more sustainable sources of energy."
While specific proposals were lacking, and that is troublesome, several significant precedents were set here. First, the unofficial gag rule on even mentioning climate change at the highest levels of public policy is officially over. Second, the illusion of a legitimate "debate" about whether the climate crisis is real or "a hoax" has been broken. We are unlikely to return again to an era of officially-sanctioned climate denial. Third, the immediacy of the climate threat has been acknowledged. It is no longer being framed as an abstract or possible threat to our future, but as a real and present danger that is already upon us, with clearly observable catastrophic effects. And finally, Obama has signaled that federal action to more aggressively address the climate crisis will no longer be held hostage to a recalcitrant Republican wing of Congressional extremists. The President has committed himself to take executive actions to the limit of his power if Congress refuses to do so.
These statements of principle and commitment are also in line with Obama's choice of John Kerry as Sec. of State, and of Sally Jewell as Sec. of Interior - both fierce advocates for climate action in the policy domain.
This feels to me, at least, like a remarkable moment of turning within American climate policy. Alex and I were together on the night of Obama's re-election, and we recently watched the movie Lincoln together as well. The President's striking emergence onto the climate stage since his re-election strengthens his potential for greatness.
A lot of climate history has been written already since our conversation on the Glacier Peak trail. Hurricane Sandy and last week's epic blizzard in New England are only the latest installments in our climate's accelerating unraveling. Obama's new display of confidence and commitment to lead on climate is heartening. But whether he rises to genuine greatness as a leader on this issue - whether he has truly recognized climate as his over-arching historical inflection point, is a story that will be written in the coming months and years.
It is essential that we do our part as citizens to hold the President's feet to the fire, and our own as well, in meeting this defining crisis of our era.