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The 3 best moments from Obama's short, feisty climate speech

He's got the whole world in his hands.
He's got the whole world in his hands.
(Photo by Samuel Corum/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

Of the many things that went wrong with the 2009 push for a cap-and-trade bill — and they are legion — one that has always rankled climate hawks is Obama's tepid and inconsistent support for the effort. When he talked about the issue, he sounded pro forma and defensive, as though reading from talking points instructing him to foreground "green jobs" and background climate itself. It never seemed as immediate to him, as close to his heart, as health care.

Since the beginning of Obama's second term, and especially since he entered his "lame duck" period of furious activity, his rhetoric on climate has grown much more sophisticated and much more personal. This was on display in his speech on Monday introducing the Clean Power Plan. It was short, but surprisingly pointed and passionate.

Below are my three favorite points.

1) Climate change is irreversible

One basic feature of climate change, which still eludes most of America's political class, makes it uniquely urgent. Obama identifies it:

... I don't deal with issues if they’re easy to solve, because somebody else has already solved them. And some of them are grim. Some of them are heartbreaking. Some of them are hard. Some of them are frustrating. But most of the time, the issues we deal with are ones that are temporally bound and we can anticipate things getting better if we just kind of plug away at it, even incrementally. But this is one of those rare issues -- because of its magnitude, because of its scope -- that if we don't get it right we may not be able to reverse, and we may not be able to adapt sufficiently. There is such a thing as being too late when it comes to climate change.

I would quibble a little with the language here. I don't think anything will ever be "too late," even if humans are reduced to roving packs of raiders in a post-apocalyptic wasteland. There's always a future.

But the core point is crucially true: The big changes scientists anticipate if temperatures keep rising are irreversible, at least in any timespan relevant to our species. If we move too slowly and things get really bad, that's it. They're bad for good.

In that sense, climate change is not like racism or poverty. We can chip away at those problems over decades; even if they rise temporarily, we can always bring them back down. If we screw up, our kids can fix it.

Changes we allow in the climate are effectively permanent. And with changes already underway, every day that passes we give up a little something we can never get back. The next generation will be starting from a less stable, more volatile baseline, facing even grimmer changes. We have it better today than they ever will.

This feature of the problem lends it a special urgency, but that is roughly the opposite of how US politicians actually deal with climate change, which is deny it, ignore it, or quibble over incremental reforms. Obama has achieved a lot through incremental reform, it is true, but as he says, "the science tells us we have to do more."

2) Regulations do lots of good, and the haters are always wrong

For all their victories on social issues lately, on economic issues mainstream Democrats are still intimidated by the right's arguments. They still bow before the transcendent wisdom of markets, shrink before debt and inflation scaremongering, pay lip service to a largely imaginary "entitlement" crisis, and accept the premise that regulations, by their very nature, disturb the "free market" and slow economic growth.

The left-leaning insurgencies of Bernie Sanders and (at a smaller scale) Elizabeth Warren, both based primarily on economic liberalism, may be changing that. But Obama also deserves a little credit. Lately, he has been inching more and more toward a defense not just of particular programs or regulations but of activist government as such — something no prominent Democrat has done in quite a while.

That's not the main point, though. The main point is that these arguments over regulations are not new. There's no need to discuss them at the level of theory and platitudes. There's a long historical record. Conservatives and the industries they've allied with have been wrong in their dire predictions about the consequence of regulations, again and again and again.

The Cry Wolf Project has an amazing database of quotes recording these apocalyptic warnings — about Medicare, Social Security, the Clean Air Act, on and on. (See also here and here.) Conservatives and industry are wrong every time, in the same way, often using the exact same language. That spectacular record of failure ought to inform our assessment of current debates.

I've always wanted politicians to make this point more squarely, and Obama did, at length:

We've heard these same stale arguments before. Every time America has made progress, it's been despite these kind of claims. Whenever America has set clear rules and smarter standards for our air, our water, our children’s health, we get the same scary stories about killing jobs and businesses and freedom. It's true.


So we got to learn lessons. We got to know our history. The kinds of criticisms that you're going to hear are simply excuses for inaction. They’re not even good business sense. They underestimate American business and American ingenuity.

In 1970, when Republican President Richard Nixon decided to do something about the smog that was choking our cities, they warned that the new pollution standards would decimate the auto industry. It didn’t happen. Catalytic converters worked. Taking the lead out of gasoline worked. Our air got cleaner.

In 1990, when Republican President George H.W. Bush decided to do something about acid rain, they said the bills would go up, our lights would go off, businesses would suffer "a quiet death." It didn’t happen. We cut acid rain dramatically, and it cost much less than anybody expected -- because businesses, once incentivized, were able to figure it out.

When we restricted leaded fuel in our cars, cancer-causing chemicals in plastics, it didn’t end the oil industry, it didn’t end the plastics industry; American chemists came up with better substitutes. The fuel standards we put in place a couple of years ago didn’t cripple automakers. The American auto industry retooled. Today, our automakers are selling the best cars in the world at a faster pace than they have in almost a decade. They’ve got more hybrids, and more plug-ins, and more high fuel-efficient cars, giving consumers more choice than ever before, and saving families at the pump.

We can figure this stuff out as long as we're not lazy about it; as long as we don't take the path of least resistance. Scientists, citizens, workers, entrepreneurs -- together as Americans, we disrupt those stale, old debates, upend old ways of thinking. Right now, we’re inventing whole new technologies, whole new industries -- not looking backwards, we're looking forwards.

I wish most journalists demonstrated this much understanding of history. Instead, every new fight over a public health regulation is another "he said, she said," claim and counter-claim, with no sense of which perspective and arguments have the best track record, no sense that the same fights have played out before in the same way. (Spoiler: Medicare did not prompt a descent into totalitarian socialism.)


3) We're all, like, one human family, man

Climate change is a global problem. Every ton of greenhouse gases emitted affects the whole atmosphere and all human beings; conversely, every ton of emissions prevented or avoided benefits all human beings. The only way to coherently address climate change is to do so together, as a species.

This kind of thing does not come naturally to us, to say the least. We have been shaped by centuries of evolution and socialization to be tribal creatures, to think in terms of us and them, not some universal us. But for very concrete, pragmatic reasons, climate change requires us to take the hippies seriously and start thinking as a human family.

Of course, for a given country it's possible to sell the climate effort on its national benefits — jobs, cleaner air, and the like — and that is Obama's main focus, as it is for any national leader. But to get the scale of action needed, there's going to need to be at least some element of global solidarity. Says Obama:

[I]t’s easy to be cynical and to say climate change is the kind of challenge that’s just too big for humanity to solve. I am absolutely convinced that’s wrong. We can solve this thing. But we have to get going. It's exactly the kind of challenge that's big enough to remind us that we’re all in this together.

Last month, for the first time since 1972, NASA released a "blue marble," a single snapshot of the Earth taken from outer space. And so much has changed in the decades between that first picture and the second. Borders have shifted, generations have come and gone, our global population has nearly doubled. But one thing hasn’t changed -- our planet is as beautiful as ever. It still looks blue. And it's as vast, but also as fragile, as miraculous, as anything in this universe.

This "blue marble" belongs to all of us. It belongs to these kids who are here. There are more than 7 billion people alive today; no matter what country they’re from, no matter what language they speak, every one of them can look at this image and say, "That’s my home."

Imagine all the people, sharing all the world ...

The famed blue marble.

(NASA Earth Observatory)

This kind of sentiment doesn't get much play in politics. Nationalism and xenophobia have a far more robust history, and it remains far easier to activate people with fear than with fellow-feeling. But climate change requires, among other things, that humanity emerge from its awkward, combative adolescence and, y'know, grow up.

As the Starks are always telling the fractious tribes of Westeros: Winter is coming.