As President Obama readies for his second term, environmentalists, climate change activists, and advocates for public health are not waiting to make their message to him loud and clear.
And in the end, they say—though they'd love his support—they will not wait for Obama as they take on the fossil fuel industry and its defenders directly.
In an open letter this week, more than 70 leaders representing groups with millions of members across the country told Obama that he must stand up boldly to address what they called the "great challenge of our time": climate change caused by runaway carbon emissions.
Striking a mostly conciliatory tone, the letter asks Obama to do three key things to ensure that he would not be known as the president who missed the last opportunity to establish US "leadership and credibility" on the issue that imperils humanity and the planet.
Those of us in the growing grassroots climate movement are going as fast and hard as we know how... Maybe if we go fast enough even this all-too-patient president will get caught up in the draft. But we’re not waiting for him. We can’t.
–Bill McKibben, 350.org
First, speak up. The letter asks Obama to "connect the dots between carbon pollution and extreme weather, and lead the public discussion of what we need to do as a nation to both prepare for the changes in climate that are no longer avoidable and avoid changes in climate that are unacceptable."
Secondly, the signatories call on the president to use his existing executive authority to bypass Congress where appropriate, and say that one of the most important things he could do would be to aggressively enforce portions of the Clean Air Act. Cleaning up or shuttering the nation's fleet of dirty coal and other fossil fuel-burning power plants, they said, would fulfill his executive responsibilities as the chief executive while also creating " tens of thousands of clean energy jobs."
And third, they demanded, is that Obama prove his knowledge of the dangerous realities of climate change by rejecting dirty oil projects like the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline from Canada.
The group told Obama: "Cutting carbon pollution at home and rejecting dirty fuels will establish America’s leadership and credibility, enabling you to create clean energy jobs in the United States while forging an effective international coalition to cut global carbon pollution.
The letter came on the same day that members and supporters of the Tar Sands Blockade staged protests across the country calling for the end of the Keystone XL project. The message from participants said these types of action should be seen as a "new phase" of their ongoing effort to block Keystone, one in which they would target the corporate and financial infrastructure behind the pipeline.
Though Obama signed an order during his first term that put the project under further review, many expect a renewed push by industry lobbyists and fossil fuel-friendly lawmakers in Congress will put the decision back on Obama's desk in the coming weeks or months.
350.org, one of the groups that has directly challenged Obama's cautious approach to climate change is now planning a large-scale action in Washington, DC for President's Day weekend to renew their objections to the project and take the fight back to the White House gates.
The group's co-founder and frequent public voice, author Bill McKibben, penned a recent essay in which he challenged the president directly to understand that climate change is not a typical political issue and should not be treated like one.
"It’s not a fight, like education reform or abortion or gay marriage, between conflicting groups with conflicting opinions," McKibben wrote. "[The physics of climate change] couldn’t be more different at a fundamental level." He explains:
We’re talking about a fight between human beings and physics. And physics is entirely uninterested in human timetables. Physics couldn't care less if precipitous action raises gas prices, or damages the coal industry in swing states. It could care less whether putting a price on carbon slowed the pace of development in China, or made agribusiness less profitable.
Physics doesn’t understand that rapid action on climate change threatens the most lucrative business on Earth, the fossil fuel industry. It’s implacable. It takes the carbon dioxide we produce and translates it into heat, which means into melting ice and rising oceans and gathering storms. And unlike other problems, the less you do, the worse it gets. Do nothing and you soon have a nightmare on your hands.
But—despite signing on to the letter released Monday urging Obama to act—McKibben concludes in his piece that no one who cares about climate change should be waiting around for politicians:
The president must be pressed to do all he can -- and more. That’s why thousands of us will descend on Washington D.C. on President’s Day weekend, in what will be the largest environmental demonstration in years. But there’s another possibility we need to consider: that perhaps he’s simply not up to this task, and that we’re going to have to do it for him, as best we can.
If he won’t take on the fossil fuel industry, we will. That’s why on 192 campuses nationwide active divestment movements are now doing their best to highlight the fact that the fossil fuel industry threatens their futures.
If he won’t use our position as a superpower to drive international climate-change negotiations out of their rut, we’ll try. That’s why young people from 190 nations are gathering in Istanbul in June in an effort to shame the U.N. into action. If he won’t listen to scientists -- like the 20 top climatologists who told him that the Keystone pipeline was a mistake -- then top scientists are increasingly clear that they’ll need to get arrested to make their point.
Those of us in the growing grassroots climate movement are going as fast and hard as we know how (though not, I fear, as fast as physics demands). Maybe if we go fast enough even this all-too-patient president will get caught up in the draft. But we’re not waiting for him. We can’t.