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Eco-Justice Notes
The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries

We Need to Act
distributed 6/28/13 - ©2013

This week's issue of Eco-Justice Notes is underwritten by Jerry Rees and Sallie Veenstra of Leawood, Kansas. Their generous support helps make this publication possible.

On Tuesday, President Obama gave a genuinely historic speech outlining a set of policies on climate change. Much of the speech was a wonky presentation of policy details, but all of that was packaged in a moral and political envelope that deserves our attention. (If you missed it, read the transcript or watch the video.)

Taken as a whole, I'd give the speech an 8.1 on a 10-point "good news" scale. A posting said, "There was plenty not to like about the speech too -- including on fracking and fossil fuel research -- but it's definitely a step forward." I think calling it "a step forward" (a 3.5 rating?) comes from a line-by-line analysis of the specific policy proposals, and scoring whether they're ambitious, effective, and pure. But just focusing on the policy details misses a two broader points.

Remember that in the presidential debates last year (was it really less than a year ago?), climate change was never mentioned. It was a laugh line at the 2012 Republican convention. But this summer, Mr. Obama declares that the science is settled -- and he even had a remarkable quip about not having time for "meetings of the Flat Earth Society". He said:

So the question is not whether we need to act. ... the question now is whether we will have the courage to act before it's too late. And how we answer will have a profound impact on the world that we leave behind not just to you, but to your children and to your grandchildren.

As a President, as a father, and as an American, I'm here to say we need to act. I refuse to condemn your generation and future generations to a planet that's beyond fixing.

Last September, I noticed a shift in climate reporting, especially about the melting of Arctic ice. Those news stories dropped the "some scientists say" style, and looked at global heating as a fact. I wrote, "The summer of 2012 may have brought us to the point where -- finally! -- we can stop bickering about whether humans are warping Earth's climate." This week, the President stepped way past bickering and science debates. He named that we're on a path "to a planet that's beyond fixing", and he got serious about addressing climate. That, in itself, is big.

Elliot Diringer commented on Obama's new policies, "Taken together, the actions represent the broadest climate strategy put forward by any U.S. president, addressing the need to both cut carbon emissions and strengthen climate resilience."

Jim Yong Kim, the president of the World Bank Group, sees Obama's policy announcement as one expression of leadership from several major countries. "President Obama injected a new sense of hope in the fight against climate change globally. The global leaders' plans in front of us reflect a growing commitment to collaborate. Our well-being and that of future generations, as well as the world's economic security, are at stake. The opportunity for action on climate change is still -- for a short time -- within our grasp."

What a change from a year ago, when the topic wasn't worth debating.

This morning, Grist reporter David Roberts analyzed the odd little section of Obama's speech about the Keystone pipeline. He tossed out the possibility that Keystone was mentioned because the choice on that project expresses what has to be considered on all future decisions.

This is the key line: "our national interest will be served only if this project does not significantly exacerbate the problem of carbon pollution." That is, if you stop to think about it, a radical thing to say. To see why, you have to think beyond Keystone. Imagine the same criterion applied to all infrastructure projects, all roads, bridges, airports, trains, electrical grids, sewer systems: If it raises carbon pollution, it is not in our national interest. If that test were taken seriously by the entire federal government (military included) ... well, we'd be living in a very different world.
Roberts floats the idea that Obama is "trying to change the long-term frame, trying to push climate pollution to the center of national decisionmaking."

Yes, there's a lot to critique in the policies that Obama outlined. But, for the first time, there is a clear and urgent commitment from a US administration to address the moral, political, technical and economic issues related to climate. A choice has been made to make clean energy, energy efficiency and climate resilience key aspects of US policy.

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We also miss what was going on in Obama's speech if we only focus on policy details and his personal intentions. He was very clear about calling for broad citizen action. He told the students at Georgetown University, "I'm here to enlist your generation's help". He ended the speech with an impassioned appeal to the students, and to all of us:

Understand this is not just a job for politicians. So I'm going to need all of you to educate your classmates, your colleagues, your parents, your friends. Tell them what's at stake. Speak up at town halls, church groups, PTA meetings. Push back on misinformation. Speak up for the facts. Broaden the circle of those who are willing to stand up for our future.

Convince those in power to reduce our carbon pollution. Push your own communities to adopt smarter practices. Invest. Divest. Remind folks there's no contradiction between a sound environment and strong economic growth. And remind everyone who represents you at every level of government that sheltering future generations against the ravages of climate change is a prerequisite for your vote. Make yourself heard on this issue.

The speech was titled, "We Need to Act". The "we" needs to be taken comprehensively. It is not just that the Obama administration needs to act (which it is starting to do), or that Congress needs to act (which is painfully unlikely), or that business needs to act (some are). We, the people, the citizens, the community members need to act. We need to speak up. We need to reinforce the clear moral principles of caring for future generations and all creation.

And to the readers of these Notes, let me stress the need for churches to act. We are -- or at least we can be -- moral leaders in our communities. We can initiate and shape public conversations. We can validate and energize engagement on political issues. We can demand conversation across partisan divides, and reject political obstructionism.

The policy points in Tuesday's speech are important. But just as important is the call for all of us to be involved urgently and passionately. So before we analyze and critique policy details, let's join wholeheartedly in affirming the President's opening statement. We need to act -- before it's too late.


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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