No-Drama Obama Needs to Feel the Heat

Here's a story of two presidents, Barack Obama of the United
States and Mohamed Nasheed of the Maldives.

Both are young and charismatic. Both were elected last fall to
replace discredited incumbents. Both have troublesome

But on the biggest question the planet faces - if we'll take
action in time to slow down global warming - they couldn't be more
different. They both may go to the U.N.-sponsored climate
conference in Copenhagen this month, but Nasheed will be there to
say: Seize the moment. If Obama makes it, he will be there to spin,
to say, no doubt elegantly: Chill.

In Nasheed's case, geography almost requires him to be
outspoken. His nation is what you picture when you picture
paradise: 1,200 tiny islands, each ringed by a reef with a lagoon,
white sand beaches and coconut palms. A small fraction have been
turned into tourist resorts, but most are either uninhabited or
home to fishing communities.

But the highest point on most of those islands is only a few
feet above sea level. They can't cope with the rising oceans that
every expert says global warming will bring, and they can't cope
with the dying corals that come when seawater gets hotter and more
acidic. And so, more than any other leader on Earth, Nasheed has
made global warming his rallying cry.

He's versed in the latest science. He knows, for instance, that
trying to limit global warming to 2 degrees Celsius and atmospheric
levels of carbon dioxide to 450 parts per million is no longer a
viable goal. That given what science now shows, the much tougher
target of 350 parts per million represents his country's only
chance for survival. As Rajendra Pachauri, the only scientist ever
to accept the Nobel Prize for his work on climate, said this month:
At 450 ppm, the Maldives and many other islands, as well as larger
low-lying countries such as Bangladesh, "will be completely

So Nasheed has gone to work. Some of his actions have been
symbolic: As part of a global day of climate action that I helped
organize, he trained his entire cabinet to scuba dive so they could
hold an underwater meeting on an endangered coral reef; they signed
a resolution to be presented at the Copenhagen summit demanding
that nations take steps to return the atmosphere's carbon level to
350 parts per million. To show its willingness to lead, the
Maldives (a poor nation) has committed to being carbon neutral by
2020. There are lots of wind towers on the way, and I've seen plans
for farming seaweed to make biofuels.

Contrast that with Obama. He's done more than his three
predecessors combined. He's taken admirable steps on automobile
fuel economy, put stimulus money into green job plans, and
surrounded himself with an excellent cast of scientific advisers.
But doing more than George W. Bush on global warming is like doing
more than George Wallace on racial healing. It gives you political
cover, but the melting Arctic ice is unimpressed.

So it's not good news that Obama's spokesmen have stuck to the
450 ppm/2 degree target, calling it consensus science when it no
longer is. And it's not good news that Obama turned climate
legislation over to Congress to produce, slotting it behind health
care on his list of priorities. Since he'd just spent some years in
the Senate, the president should have been able to predict what
would happen: The already none-too-strong Waxman-Markey (House) and
Kerry-Boxer (Senate) bills have been laden with ever more gifts to
ever more special interests and ever more loopholes to undermine
their targets.

Obama's excuse is that the Senate won't OK tough climate
legislation, so there's no use pushing for it. (And he's right -
the Senate is tough. At, an organization I co-founded that
is dedicated to solving the climate crisis, we're working to
organize candlelight vigils at senators' offices around the
country.) But that's conceding the game without taking a shot.

Imagine an American president who would take the press corps to
Glacier National Park so they could hike the dwindling ice fields,
then fly them above the millions of acres of dead lodgepole pines
covering much of the West, and then take them to stand on the
levees in New Orleans. These are the kinds of stunts Obama knew how
to pull off when he was running for president.

And they're exactly what he needs to do if we're going to deal
with climate in the short time science gives us. A mediocre health
care bill is one thing; you can probably come back in a generation
and make it stronger. People may suffer in the meantime, but the
problem won't become logarithmically worse. The climate, on the
other hand, is full of traps and tipping points - let it get warm
enough to melt the permafrost that locks away vast supplies of
methane, and no future president will be able to control the
heating. If there were ever a challenge that called for focus, this
is it.

At the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Singapore,
one of the U.S. spokesmen said: "There was an assessment by the
leaders that it is unrealistic to expect a full, internationally
legally binding agreement could be negotiated between now and
Copenhagen, which starts in 22 days."

This is pathetic spin. Copenhagen has been on the calendar for
years - it's not a surprise that someone sprung on the president,
who shortly after last year's election declared: "Once I take
office, you can be sure that the United States will once again
engage vigorously in these negotiations and help lead the world
toward a new era of global cooperation on climate change. Now is
the time to confront this challenge once and for all. Delay is no
longer an option. Denial is no longer an acceptable response. The
stakes are too high."

The stakes didn't get any lower in the past 12 months. In fact,
NASA recently issued new data showing that the world has just come
through the warmest June-October period in recorded history.
Meanwhile, officials at a U.N. summit on hunger were describing new
research that showed temperature increases above 2 degrees could
cut crop yields by a fifth in poor countries. Meanwhile, a new
study showed jellyfish swarming across the world's oceans as
temperatures rise, driving out the species people need for food.
Meanwhile - day after day - the list gets longer.

Obama always gets high marks for his cool, his lack of drama.
His patience. Maybe he should learn a thing or two from

This column first appeared
in the Washington Post.

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