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Words, Deeds, Droughts, and Decisions on Climate Change

Three events collided this past week for me in the space of 36 hours, all revolving around climate change. The first was the inaugural address given by President Obama, in which he declared:

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 American cannot resist this transition. We must lead it.

To some, this was seen as yet another in a series of nice speeches, designed to pacify progressives while selling them out when it comes to action. As I noted that day, however, Obama’s speech specifically called out his opponents in ways he had not done so in the past. This speech was different:

Obama did not name Jim Inhofe, Paul Ryan, and Michele Bachmann, but he took very direct aim at them and their colleagues. He did not have to do this, and if he was looking at playing nice with the GOP in Congress as a legislative strategy, he would not have said this.

The fact that he did say it — in an inaugural address, no less — means that he is giving up on reaching out to the climate change deniers, the Ayn Rand worshipers, and the namecallers of the GOP in the House and Senate. He made sure that they will never forget this day, and he’s writing them off.

He didn’t have to do this. This wasn’t a press conference, where he was asked about climate change or the tone of the political discourse. This was an inaugural address, where he could say whatever he wanted, and he chose to call out the radicals of the GOP for the radicals they are.

That makes me cautiously optimistic that there will be efforts made to match the words.

The second event that made me think of climate change was the death of longtime FDL writer, editor, and friend, John Chandley (aka Scarecrow). John was one of the “Tar Sands 65” who were arrested outside the White House in August 2011 for protesting the proposed Keystone XL pipeline, and I found myself going back to some of John’s old posts on those protests. After the arrests, John wrote a powerful post on why he participated, and what was at stake:

Bill McKibben, head of 350.0rg and a principal organizer for the White House demonstrations against the Tar Sands extraction and Keystone XL pipeline, was interviewd Tuesday night by KO on Countdown [video here].   McKibben’s quietly understated message to the President was direct,  personal and moving, and equally important, evolving:

It’s going to be gut-check time for the President.

When he ran for President . . . the night he was nominated, in fact, he said, “you know what?  When I’m President , the rise of the oceans will begin to slow, and the planet will begin to heal.”   That’s powerful talk.

He hasn’t yet done heroic things on the environment.  He’s done some good things around the edges, but nothing transformative.  And he’s backed down on some important fights.

This time, he can’t blame it on Congress; he doesn’t have to ask Jim Inhoff for permission; he doesn’t need any help from the Congress.  He can turn down this permit himself.  And if he does — and here I think is the political calculation — if he does it will send a surge of excitement through that base.

We were sitting, lying on the metal shelves in what’s called the central cell block in the Washington jail the other day, and people were saying, “you know, the last time I was this uncomfortable, I was lying in a church basement getting ready to go knock on doors for Barack Obama.”  I sure hope I get reminded of why I was doing all of that.”

When Jane Hamsher asked me if I wanted to join her at a White House demonstration led by McKibben that would also include Dan Choi, I said “sure,” not yet realizing I would spend two days in the cell directly across from Bill and down the cell block corridor from Dan.

And Bill is right that the cells and bunks were uncomfortable.  But we kept telling each other this isn’t anything compared to what the planet and its people face if we don’t stop the madness of releasing one of the world’s largest concentrations of carbon, stripping the forests, threatening the aquifers, and then burning the fuel.

There’s more — much more — in the whole post at the link above, and everything Bill and John said is more true today that it was in 2011.

The third event was the word that Nebraska’s governor David Heineman had completely flip-flopped on his August 2011 opposition to the Keystone XL pipeline, and now had given his formal and official approval to the project. The only obstacle to the pipeline now is Obama. As Charlie Pierce noted,

. . . if the president were sincere in the perfectly justified contempt he showed in his inaugural address toward politicians who traffic in climate-change denial, one way he could prove it would be to put the final kibosh on the Keystone XL pipeline, the Republican fetish-object meant to bring the world’s dirtiest fossil fuel down the spine of the continent and within leaking range of the Oglalla aquifer, the most important source of freshwater in this part of the hemisphere.

Either Obama signs off on the pipeline, and it gets built, or he doesn’t, and it gets stopped. His is the only vote left to count, and it will decide things.

Meanwhile, for those of us in the middle of the country, the ongoing drought continues to settle in. The January 22 US Drought Monitor report notes that more than 90% of the High Plains is in some level of drought, with over 60% facing extreme drought and over 25% have exceptional drought conditions. They also note, worryingly, that in the Rockies, the snow pack is a problem: “The lack of snow continues to heighten concern across much of the West. While there is plenty of time to make up ground, last year’s low pack across the central and southern Rockies in particular has several interests watching closely to see if a strong finish to winter can bring about more promising streamflow forecasts for the dry season come summer.”

This is what climate change looks like, as William deBuys so eloquently described in A Great Aridness: Climate Change and the Future of the American Southwest, and discussed in his FDL Book Salon chat last April.

Bill McKibben isn’t sitting back and waiting to see what Obama will decide. He’s continuing to push hard, and is hoping to make Presidents Day 2013 quite the memorable occasion in the city of presidents. From

{!hitembed ID=”hitembed_1″ width=”300″ height=”169″ align=”left” !}

Join the #ForwardOnClimate Rally on 2/17!

At 12 Noon on Sunday, February 17, thousands of Americans will head to Washington, D.C. to make Forward on Climate the largest climate rally in history. Join this historic event to make your voice heard and help the president start his second term with strong climate action.

Crippling drought. Devastating wildfires. Superstorm Sandy. Climate has come home – and the American people get it.

The first step to putting our country on the path to addressing the climate crisis is for President Obama to reject the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline. His legacy as president will rest squarely on his response, resolve, and leadership in solving the climate crisis. . . .

Just over a year ago, 15,000 people surrounded the White House — and President Obama listened, delaying the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline. This is our best chance to show the President how strong this movement has become since then — sign up today.

The details are at the link, and I can think of no finer way to celebrate Presidents Day than to encourage Obama to stop the Keystone XL project. The time for reflecting is over, Mr. President. The time for deciding has come.


Official White House Photo by Pete Souza. Its use here does not imply that the White House agrees with what I’ve said, but I’m hoping Bill McKibben and friends can help the WH come around to what I’ve laid out here.

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I'm an ordained Lutheran pastor with a passion for language, progressive politics, and the intersection of people's inner sets of ideals and beliefs (aka "faith" to many) and their political actions. I mostly comment around here, but offer a weekly post or two as well. With the role that conservative Christianity plays in the current Republican politics, I believe that progressives ignore the dynamics of religion, religious language, and religiously-inspired actions at our own peril. I am also incensed at what the TheoCons have done to the public impression of Christianity, and don't want their twisted version of it to go unchallenged in the wider world. I'm a midwesterner, now living in the Kansas City area, but also spent ten years living in the SF Bay area. I'm married to a wonderful microbiologist (she's wonderful all the way around, not just at science) and have a great little Kid, for whom I am the primary caretaker these days. I love the discussions around here, especially the combination of humor and seriousness that lets us take on incredibly tough stuff while keeping it all in perspective and treating one another with respect.

And Preview is my friend.