The gulf oil spill is Obama's chance to take bold steps on climate change.
Here's the president on March 31, announcing his plan to lift a longstanding moratorium on offshore drilling: "Given our energy needs, in order to sustain economic growth and produce jobs and keep our businesses competitive, we are going to need to harness traditional sources of fuel even as we ramp up production of new sources of renewable, homegrown energy."
And here he is on May 26, as political pressure started to really build over BP's hole in the bottom of the sea: "We're not going to be able to sustain this kind of fossil fuel use. The planet can't sustain it." Still, he added quickly: "We're not going to transition out of oil next year or 10 years from now."
And here is the president Wednesday, after yet another gimcrack solution at 5,000 feet under the waters of the Gulf of Mexico had gone awry and real anger at the administration's lackluster performance was cresting: "The time has come to aggressively accelerate [the transition from fossil fuels.] The time has come, once and for all, for this nation to fully embrace a clean-energy future."
The question is: Which one is the real Obama? Has he really been transformed by the oil spill in the gulf, or is he merely trying to ride out the public reaction with stronger words? I think the answer is as murky as the water off Mobile. We don't know because so far it's all words; the closest he's come to specifics is that pledge that we won't be off oil in a decade.
Which, of course, is true. Ten years from now, we'll still be using oil. Many of the people who bought new Fords this year will still be driving them in 2020. Exxon will still be in business. But this realism didn't need to preclude him from saying so much more than he did. Had he chosen to, he could have pledged: "Ten years from now, America will be using half the oil we do today and producing 10 times as much solar power." That would have been stirring. That would have put something on the line.
He could, in other words, have done what President Kennedy did when he committed us to an accelerated space program. In a special address to Congress in May 1961, JFK urged that America pledge itself to the goal, "before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the Earth." He demanded of Congress "a firm commitment to a new course of action, a course which will last for many years and carry very heavy costs."
Now, let's catalog the differences. Kennedy had the Cold War to help him, along with an accelerating economy and a strong congressional majority. Obama presides over a fragile economy and a fractious Congress. And he must deal with a lunatic right that, at the last Republican convention, came together around the slogan "drill, baby, drill."
Not only that, but the challenge Obama faces is much tougher. The Apollo mission was technically complex but in a sense the very opposite of our energy challenge. A moon shot meant focusing all our energy on three guys and a rocket, while an energy revolution would mean, in essence, landing the whole nation on a different planet, one where we no longer need the fossil fuels that are currently the engine for our economy. So, advantage Kennedy.
Obama, however, has no choice. The planet's future (and his legacy) will, in the long run, be defined by his response to global warming, the greatest problem humans have ever faced.
Forget the Cold War. Last week, new satellite data showed that this summer's melt in the Arctic is already ahead of 2007's record pace. Globally, we've just come through the warmest winter on record, and it seems all but certain that 2010 will set a record for the hottest calendar year. Every week we seem to see record deluges somewhere. May began with crazy flooding in Nashville and ended with inundation in Guatemala. Last week saw the warmest temperatures ever recorded in Asia and Southeast Asia.
So far, Obama's barely broken a sweat on climate change — a few paragraphs in a few speeches. Now, the catastrophic oil spill in the gulf offers him the best chance he's ever going to get to go to work. The president could stand on the Louisiana shore and say: "Bad as this is, it's only a small and visible symbol of the greater damage we do each day simply by burning coal and gas and oil. If that black gunk now washing up here had ended up safely in the gas tanks of our cars, it would nonetheless have done great damage. It's all dirty, every last drop and lump."
The president already has the podium he needs to start turning history, which means more than merely pushing for the climate and energy bill introduced last month by Sens. John Kerry and Joe Lieberman — a prime example of baby-step politics.
The bottom line from that bill: If you neglect all the offsets and loopholes, we're aiming for a 4% reduction in carbon emissions from 1990 levels by 2020. Make your blood stir? Obama's not proposing real solutions to real problems; he's ticking off items on a list. He got a healthcare bill, and just maybe he'll get an energy bill (though that's an increasingly slim maybe). But we don't need the bill. We need the thing.
I'm putting this all on Obama, even though it's clear that he can't do it by himself. He'd need a movement to make real progress. That's the tragedy, though. He's already got a movement. He was elected with millions of us sending him money, knocking on doors, standing in snow banks with signs. He commands a standing army (albeit one that's growing rusty from disuse and a little demoralized).
And it's not just here. Around the world, we at 350.org were able to organize giant demonstrations last year — 5,200 of them in 181 countries. We did it by rallying people around a tough but understandable goal: reducing levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere to 350 parts per million, which, according to NASA scientists, is the most we can safely have in the atmosphere. Since we're already past that point — at 390 ppm — we need to work harder than we could ever have imagined. We really do need to get off oil in the coming decade.
But to have a chance, we need a leader. We need someone to stand up and tell it the way it is, and in language so compelling and dramatic it sets us on a new path. On this planet of nearly 7 billion, at this moment in history, there's exactly one person who could play that role. And so far he hasn't.
Bill McKibben, a scholar-in-residence at Middlebury College, is the founder of 350.org and the author most recently of "Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet." A longer version of this piece can be found at tomdispatch.com.