President Obama Hails New 'Age of Responsibility'
President Obama pledges to 'roll back the spectre of a warming planet' by changing the way America uses energy and the world's resources
President Barack Obama, in his inaugural address to the packed crowds on the National Mall in Washington DC, told his rapt audience that America needed a "new era of responsibility" to deal with both the financial and environmental crises his new administration faced.
After a stammering through the oath of office, the subtext of the gritty speech was that it would be hard – very hard – but America had the resourcefulness to reinvent itself.
The new president's commitment to his environmental agenda shone through the dour images of a world economy in crisis with references to "rolling back" global warming through transforming the way America uses energy by harnessing "the sun and the wind and the soil".
"My fellow citizens. I stand here today humbled by the task before us," he said, "Every so often the oath is taken amidst gathering clouds and raging storms." Those storms are the metaphorical tempests on the global markets, but they are also the gales that will literally result from climate instability caused by rising CO2 emissions.
Obama hinted that the Bush administration's championing of fossil fuels had created grave problems – both climatic and geopolitical. "The ways we use energy strengthen our adversaries and endanger our planet," he said, referring presumably to Middle Eastern oil. But ultimately, his message was one of hope. The challenges the country faces will are not insurmountable, he said. "Know this America, they will be met," he said, "On this day we gather because we have chosen hope over fear."
"We remain the most prosperous, powerful nation on Earth… Our capacity remains undiminished," he added.
Today was not a day for detailed solutions to the climate change threat or for a policy-wonk's guide to the new green economy that Obama promised on the campaign trail. That hard graft begins later. But there was a statement of intent that scientific and environmental issues would occupy a renewed place in the Oval Office. "We will restore science to its rightful place," he said, "We will harness the sun and the wind and the soil to fuel our cars."
Before the inaugaration, Obama had already delighted scientists and environmentalists with his choice of green-minded scientists that will join his administration and his professed attitude to scientific evidence. He has emphasised the need to listen to scientists, "especially when it is inconvenient". In a signal of this renewed respect for evidence he has restored the authority of the president's science advisor to the White House. Obama's pick for the position, John Holdren, professor of environmental policy at the John F Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, has been uncompromising in his warnings about the threat posed by climate change (he dislikes the phrase "global warming" because it he says oversimplifies the nature of the problem).
The new president has invited Jane Lubchenco, a marine biologist at Oregon State University to become head of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the government agency that studies the climate and monitors the health of marine ecosystems. She has been a powerful advocate for action on climate change. Obama has also received plaudits for his pick of Nobel prizewinning physicist Steven Chu for energy secretary.
During the campaign, Obama committed himself to a $150bn investment over the next decade in green energy. He wants to put 1m plug-in hybrid cars, with a fuel consumption of 150 miles per gallon, on the road by 2015. He also pledged that 10% of US electricity supplies should come from renewable sources by 2012 and 25% by 2025. He also signalled an intention to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 80% by 2050. He will be under pressure to make good on these commitments and quickly.
In his closing statements, President Obama pledged to "roll back the spectre of a warming planet". But his message was even more fundamental than just changing the way the US and world uses energy. "We can no longer afford indifference to the suffering that occurs outside our borders. Nor can we consume the world's resources without regard to the effect," he said.
"What is required of us now is a new era of responsibility… This is the price and promise of citizenship." It remains to be seen whether ordinary Americans are prepared to take that responsibility and make the sacrifices their new leader is asking for.