The Climate Moment

The election is over. Now, the President needs to hear from you.

If not for the Louisiana Purchase, and the ensuing fight over whether new states would join the union as free or slave, how long would have slavery persisted in our country? But for the Cuban Missile Crisis, when would the superpowers have moved toward disarmament? If not for Pearl Harbor, would we have entered WWII in time to prevail?

That famous quote from Churchill—“you can always count on America to do the right thing, after it has tried everything else”—has no shortage of proof.

It’s easy to forget the long, uncertain path America wandered before confronting evil, and the reluctance many Americans felt when the nation finally entered WWII.

But having grown up during the 1960s, I can never forget the visceral power of the H-Bomb threat. Even we schoolchildren knew those ludicrous “duck-and-cover” drills offered little more than pacification in the face of nuclear incineration.

If WWII and the arms race were object lessons in our taste for brinksmanship, than the climate crisis represents the most dangerous test we will ever face.

Global warming, by its very nature, is gradual and probabilistic. No single event can undeniably separate the signal from the noise. No single moment can make us certain that we are on—or already over—the brink.

We owe a deep debt of gratitude to Al Gore for recognizing this. Since climate change hasn’t given us a timely “moment of truth,” he tried valiantly to create one himself.

His efforts, most notably his Nobel Prize-wining “An Inconvenient Truth,” came close. But terrorism, two wars, the Great Recession, a highly effective disinformation campaign, and human nature itself derailed him.

The biggest problem for Mr. Gore is that he did not assume the presidency in 2000. As with the case against fascism and nukes, American presidential leadership spells the difference between confronting danger head on and acquiescing to it.

President Obama has not been handed a Pearl Harbor or Cuban Missile Crisis, but I think there is real hope that he can now create our Climate Moment.

He won a decisive reelection victory over a well-financed climate denial machine and a Republican Party that was enthralled by, or held hostage to, its message.

Beyond the validation this victory provides, he will never have to run for President again. The electoral vote calculus that might have stopped him from speaking the truth about our need to turn away from coal energy quickly is no longer his problem.

Our economy and our optimism about it are clearly improving. Perhaps most importantly, Mother Nature has given Americans a string of extreme weather events—most notably the unprecedented Superstorm Sandy. Polls show that we are connecting the dots between these experiences and anthropogenic climate change.

My ardent hope is that the President will use his second Inaugural Address—the largest bully pulpit he will ever yet ascend—to call America and the world to arms against a threat that dwarfs slavery, fascism, and nuclear war.

Our first job is to encourage him to do so in every way that we can. This president has built the most robust technology-based system for communicating with his supports that the political world has ever known. He’s used it to call us to action before, for his reelection, and most recently in defense of the middle class tax cut.

We must use this system to send an unequivocal message back.

We who are already in the “climate alarmed” camp must recognize that, without a Pearl Harbor-like event, the President is going to need every bit of support we can muster as he steps up to the podium on January 21st.

I’ve written a lot lately about the need for all of us to stretch our personal and professional measures of leadership on this issue. For the President’s sake—for all our sakes—we must ensure that history remembers 2013 as the year of the Climate Moment.

As President Obama so often says, let the President and Members of Congress hear from you.

PHOTO CREDIT: Photo courtesy of seannaber via creative commons license.

About the Author

Tom is founder and CEO of Bowman Change, Inc., a consultancy dedicated to helping organizations reap the benefits of working with purpose—making social issues and environmental change central to their missions.