Will Failure on Climate Ruin Obama's Legacy?


Photo via Pax Communications

If 97% of climate scientists are right, then history will judge present-day world leaders first and foremost on what they did to combat climate change once the plight was made clear. Take Barack Obama. 75 years from now, people may look back and ponder: We had the necessary information, we understood the risks, and yet a president elected on a platform that included a promise to fight global warming failed to preserve a livable climate for much of the world. Could this end up being the biggest blow to Obama's legacy?If nothing is done to restrict global carbon emissions -- starting with the United States' -- and the worse case projections laid out by climate modelers come to pass, then I can all but guarantee that the passage of a health care bill that inches us towards universal coverage will be perceived as an ephemeral blip.

All this comes to mind after I finished an infuriating -- but must-read -- piece in the Rolling Stone that details the Obama administration's supreme bungling of climate legislation. Want to get angry? Read this. (Unless you're a climate denier, then it will probably make you giddy, but I digress ...) Also worth reading is Joe Romm's commentary.

Don't get me wrong -- I support the intentions of the health care reform bill; it's criminal that the richest nation on earth isn't currently providing adequate health care to all its citizens. But in the long-term, climate change is a far graver threat, and a far greater challenge to humanity in general. And the United States had (and maybe still has) a chance to lead the world in fighting climate change -- the majority of the public supports climate action and clean energy development, a solid piece of legislation that prices carbon emissions passed the House of Reps a full year ago, there's a solid Democratic majority in the Senate, and now a disaster caused by the fossil fuel industry has made it clear how dangerous relying on the stuff can be. Not to mention the fact that so far, 2010 has been the hottest year ever recorded.

Aside from an exceptionally cantankerous GOP, you couldn't ask for a more hospitable, uh, climate for passing climate legislation. But so far, the administration has blown it. Big time. Despite making some serious progress; mobilizing the EPA, which recognized carbon emissions as a harmful pollutant, investing seriously in clean energy R&D;, and instating a tough fuel economy standard for cars, the one major achievement -- pricing carbon emissions on a large scale -- remains undone. And I wonder if down the line, after it's become clear that climate change is inflicting misery upon many parts of the world, people will recognize that there was such a chance to turn back the tide of growing carbon emissions -- and that one leader in particular lacked the vision and prowess to do it.

The flip side is frustrating to ponder too -- what if the president who successfully tackles climate change (if there ever can be such a thing in the US) is never as publicly cheered as, say, a president who put an end to slavery, or clinched victory in WWII? Those victories were visible, palpable -- successfully fighting climate change means our world stays essentially the same (but is driven by cleaner energy, more sustainable products, fossil fuel-free vehicles, etc). In a just world, he would be -- and maybe eventually the public will be educated in climate science thoroughly enough to recognize such an achievement (fingers crossed). We have to assume that this will be the case, as the already strong science continues to grow stronger yet.

It's an idle thought, anyway, but you've got to wonder if such considerations grace world leaders' minds while they're lying awake at night. If they do, I hope this one floats through Obama's subconscious: You have -- or at least, had -- a chance to lead the effort to preserve a livable climate for people around the globe. What will your legacy be?

More on Obama and Climate Change
Will Climate Change be " Obama's Waterloo"?
Obama Plans Climate Bill Push, Supports Nuclear and Drilling

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