The election campaign has (unofficially) lasted almost two years. It’s featured endless discussions on health care, the housing crisis, and who should get blamed for something their minister said. But when we elect a new leader, among his very first jobs will be figuring out how to deal with global warming. He almost certainly won’t want it to rise to the top of his to-do list, but it will. He who comes next is the Climate Change President.
Global warming is going to be the most important new foreign policy challenge of the Climate Change President’s tenure, because, unlike the Bush administration, the rest of the world hasn’t spent the last eight years ignoring the climate problem. In the other developed nations, it’s been diplomatic question number one. What these governments have realized is that when the Northwest Passage opens for the first time in human history, it’s clearly time to do something. For the last five years, ongoing gatherings on the issue have all been working toward the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen in December of 2009. This is when the world is supposed to conclude a follow-up treaty to the Kyoto Protocol and really put the planet on the path to dealing with climate change. The conference is just eleven months after Inauguration Day.
This could be an agreement as key as those struck at Yalta or Versailles. It could determine the economic architecture of the 21st century. And the rest of the world’s leaders are not going to issue the new president a free pass. If America plans on getting back in the good graces of the international community, it’s going to have to start leading on the issue.
So what’s a president to do? First, to have any credibility at all, he’s going to need to figure out how to cut American carbon emissions dramatically. Then he’s going to have to help write a carbon version of the Marshall Plan, something that will allow China and India to develop their economies while forgoing the use of coal.
Luckily, he has some help. A year ago, David W Orr, the Oberlin professor and environmental leader, helped pull together a panel of scholars to write a hundred-day action plan on climate change that would get us moving in the right direction. The panel, headed by Clinton administration energy official Bill Becker, has come up with more than 300 recommendations (see climateactionproject.com) that cover everything from “better manure management” to moving federal offices closer to mass transit lines. The cornerstone, though, is a cap on carbon—which would steadily raise its price and just as steadily wean us off fossil fuel.
Orr and his colleagues have done the kind of congressional heavy lifting that can use up a new administration’s political capital in short order. Now all the next president has to do is overcome some of the richest corporations in the country (those in the energy industry) during a perceived recession in which gasoline prices are higher than ever before. There’s probably only one argument that can carry the day. In Becker’s words it goes like this: “This is the drive to build a new American economy for the 21st century. We need to base that new economy on a whole new set of resources.”
That is to say: Fighting climate change is only partly about cooperating with Europe, China, India, and Japan to save the ice caps and the forests. It’s also about beating them in the next great economic shift. The sun, or so the argument will go, is about to set on the American empire—unless we can figure out how to capture its rays in a solar panel.
It’s hard to be deeply optimistic. As Orr says, “Time is short; time is not our friend.” But at least George Bush will be gone, and the era of his administration’s denial with him. We’ll see if the old can-do American spirit can reassert itself in time.
Bill McKibben is a scholar in residence at Middlebury College, the author of a dozen books about the environment, and the cofounder of the current 350.org campaign, a global grassroots effort to fight climate change.
Story by Bill McKibben. This article originally appeared in Plenty in October 2008.