Welcome to Reality, Mr. President

At the end of this historic week, we wanted to send you an essay by 350.org co-founder Bill McKibben on what’s ahead for our movement.

Welcome to Reality, Mr. President-Elect

by Bill McKibben

Our eight-year interlude from reality draws to a close, and the job of cleaning up begins. The trouble is, we’re not just cleaning up after a failed US presidency. We’re cleaning up after a two-century binge.

Barack Obama won an historic victory this week, and with it the right to take office under the most difficult circumstances since Franklin D. Roosevelt during the Great Depression. Maybe more difficult, because while both FDR and Obama had financial meltdowns to deal with, Obama also faces the meltdown meltdown – the rapid disintegration of the planet’s climate system that threatens to challenge the very foundations of our civilization.

Do you think that sounds melodramatic? Let me give it to you from the abstract of a scientific paper written earlier this year by one of the people who now work for Mr. Obama, NASA scientist James Hansen. “If humanity wishes to preserve a planet similar to that on which civilization developed and to which life on Earth is adapted, paleo-climate evidence and ongoing climate change suggest that CO2 [in the atmosphere] will need to be reduced from its current 385 ppm [parts per million] to at most 350 ppm.” In other words, if we keep increasing carbon any longer, the earth itself will make our efforts moot.

The world is meeting in Copenhagen in December of 2009 to come up with a successor to the Kyoto treaty, the modest first international effort that George W. Bush walked away from weeks after taking office. If Hansen and others are even close to right, this will represent the last legitimate shot the world has at putting itself on a new carbon regime in time to make any difference.

Any hope of succeeding will require Obama to grasp, deep in his guts, the fact that climate, energy, food, and the economy are now hopelessly intertwined, and that trying to solve any one of these problems without taking on the others simply makes all of them worse. More, he needs to understand, again viscerally, the single stark fact of our time: No matter how many votes, no matter how much lobbying, no matter how much pressure you apply, you can’t amend the laws of physics and chemistry. They aren’t like the laws that politicians are used to dealing with. They will be obeyed, like it or not. 350 is now the most important number on the planet, the red line that defines reality reality.

It doesn’t define political reality, however. The political reality goes like this: George W. Bush was so terrible on this issue that the bar has been set incredibly low – Obama will get all the political points he needs with fairly minimal effort. Doing what actually needs to be done will be politically…unpopular isn’t even the word. It might well wreck his political future, because it would involve – directly or indirectly – raising the cost of continuing to live as we do right now.

My guess, from the outside, is that all Obama’s instincts are centrist. Certainly in energy policy he’s offered nothing all that bold or interesting, though his sophistication and engagement have grown during the campaign, which is a good sign.

A better sign is simply that, by every testimony, he’s one of the smartest men ever to assume high political office in this country. Not just smarter than Bush. Really smart. Smart enough, if he sits down to really understand the scale of the problem he faces, that he might decide to take the gambles that the situation requires. He said, not long ago, “under my plan of a cap-and-trade system, electricity rates would necessarily skyrocket” – which is a sign of someone who is aware there may be a reality to come to grips with.

First sign to watch for: Does he go to Poland next month for the United Nations Climate Change Conference, and in so doing electrify the international talks over carbon?

All of us, you and I and all our partners, have been hard at work to collect over 44,000 invitations for President-elect Obama to attend that meeting.  We have heard him say he’s interested and will at the least send a high level representative next month.

Obama, and the rest of us, have a lot more to fear than fear itself. We’ve got carbon, and right now that’s the most frightening stuff on earth. Nonetheless, we’re feeling inspired and hopeful about the new possibilities that exist after this election – for the US and for the world. It’s now up to us to make sure the steps for Obama and for our global movement are laid out in rapid succession.  The next step is in Poland: www.350.org/invite

We’re in this together,

Bill McKibben

 

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