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With High Hopes for the Future: Obama's Moral Imperative to Address Climate Change

It's no secret that Abraham Lincoln is Barack Obama's favorite former president. The connections between the 16th and 44th presidents are often discussed, and even more so since Daniel Day-Lewis vividly reintroduced Lincoln to the world in November. So on the eve of his second inauguration, it is a safe bet that President Obama is plumbing Lincoln's experience for inspiration and strength.

Carter Roberts

The current president is already a historical figure as a symbol of America's evolution since Lincoln secured passage of the 13th Amendment. But I wager that, like Lincoln, President Obama will be remembered most for what he does to address the existential threat that history has presented on his watch: the breakdown of our planet's natural systems upon which all life depends, and specifically human-caused climate change.

There are many differences between these two moments and threats, but both are profoundly moral challenges. Climate change is having an inequitable impact on the world today and will greatly burden future generations if we fail to act. We are all vulnerable, but those least able to adapt -- the world's poor, and countless species of non-human life -- are suffering and will suffer the most. For both challenges, clear and active leadership from the president is a linchpin of staring down the crisis.

“With his remaining time on history's stage, we must hope that the president trusts his instincts and, with firmness in the right, boldly leads us toward a safer climate future. ”

Carter Roberts
WWF President and CEO

We know what's at stake. Superstorm Sandy, this year's historic Midwest drought and Western wildfires have made that painfully real. We've experienced a taste of our future. In a startling new report, the World Bank paints the full, disturbing picture of where we are headed.

Because of the time lag in the climate system, what we are seeing now is the consequence of our parents' and grandparents' pollution. And through our decisions today, we are creating the world our children and grandchildren will inherit tomorrow. The International Energy Agency puts an even finer point on the next four years, projecting that unless we change course, by 2017 the energy infrastructure will be in place to produce the pollution that will take us across the 2°C threshold that scientists believe would severely destabilize the climate system. The choices we make now will fill the history books later this century.

In a recent Time interview President Obama himself framed the climate challenge as a moral issue: "[W]e've got to get this right and at least give [our kids] a fighting chance. ... You don't want them inheriting the consequences of bad choices that you make." But the timidity that the Obama administration has shown on climate change during its first term doesn't align with this "urgency of now."

A below-the-radar White House climate strategy is also no longer necessary. For all its devastation, Sandy held a silver lining: The superstorm shattered the nation's climate silence. This renewed national conversation has revealed a country ready for presidential leadership. Mayors, governors, union leaders, faith communities and CEOs are calling for, and indeed are already reaching for, practical solutions: smarter community planning; increasing clean, renewable energy; and investing in energy conservation that saves money and the climate.

By seizing solutions within his power, a looming crisis can become the foundation for the president's legacy. Here's how he can do it:

  • Foster a bipartisan national conversation: Earlier this month the most up-to-date summary of climate change impacts in the United States was released. The president should not sweep this under the rug, as happened with a similar report in 2009. Instead, he should use the "public review draft" of the National Climate Assessment to help communities understand how they will be affected by a changing climate and what practical steps are needed to prepare. A conversation built around local impacts and solutions would 1) help communities get ahead of the next Sandy; 2) remind us that we have the tools, the industry and the ingenuity to prosper; and 3) provide openings for rebuilding bipartisan support. The president should actively engage his vast grassroots network in this effort.
  • Use existing authorities to act now: Lincoln didn't wait for Congress. The president has many tools available now, and he should fully use them all. The most important is the Clean Air Act -- one of America's most well-loved laws -- which can help clean up our electricity system (the largest source of America's climate pollution). The long-delayed climate standards for new power plants should be finalized, and strong standards for the nation's oldest, dirtiest power plants should be created in 2013.
  • Empower John Kerry: The U.S. and other countries agreed last year to complete an international compact to fight global warming by 2015 -- and the clock is ticking. A united global effort is vital to fully tackling such a global challenge. The Senate's most outspoken climate hawk will lead these talks as the new Secretary of State. John Kerry needs the authority and flexibility to strike an ambitious deal with China, Europe and the other countries of the world.

These steps are firmly within the president's control and will help build toward a day when Congress can become part of the solution. But an aggressive climate agenda will require channeling some of Lincoln's audacity and courage. President Obama will need to spend some political capital and ignore those from his inner circle who are continuing to call for a limited, incremental approach.

With his remaining time on history's stage, we must hope that the president trusts his instincts and, with firmness in the right, boldly leads us toward a safer climate future. His children and grandchildren will thank him for it.

This post is part of a series produced by The Huffington Post that closely examines the most pressing challenges facing President Obama in his second term.