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Obama’s Inaugural Address

Obama’s Inaugural Address

President Obama’s Inaugural Address made a soaring and vague commitment to fight climate change (video here). These were his words:

We, the people, still believe that our obligations as Americans are not just to ourselves, but to all posterity. We will respond to the threat of climate change, knowing that the failure to do so would betray our children and future generations. Some may still deny the overwhelming judgment of science, but none can avoid the devastating impact of raging fires, and crippling drought, and more powerful storms. The path towards sustainable energy sources will be long and sometimes difficult. But America cannot resist this transition; we must lead it. We cannot cede to other nations the technology that will power new jobs and new industries — we must claim its promise. That is how we will maintain our economic vitality and our national treasure — our forests and waterways; our croplands and snowcapped peaks. That is how we will preserve our planet, commanded to our care by God. That’s what will lend meaning to the creed our fathers once declared.

Vagueness on climate change action is necessary for any politician because while the core environmental-climate change problem can be stated simply – TOO MANY PEOPLE CONSUME TOO MUCH- meaningful responses are difficult politically. Meaningful federal government actions might, theoretically, include:

  1. ditching the “economic growth is good” political mantra, which is almost unquestioned in the United States, and substituting a national plan for diminishing public and private consumption quickly;
  2. implementing a carbon tax high enough to cut hydrocarbon consumption in half along with greenhouse gases resulting from our burning coal, oil and natural gas;
  3. changing the tax code to discourage women having more than one or two children in their lifetimes, changes such as doing away with child dependency exemptions;
  4. funding strong birth control programs here and abroad;
  5. limiting public funding for end-of-life medical care;
  6. aggressively cutting immigration into the United States;
  7. downsizing the military.

None of these measures appear to be remotely possible in 2013 Washington, where our leaders and followers respond best to in-your-face emergencies like Hurricane Sandy’s flooding that climate change causes. Mother Nature spanks civilizations for violating her, but she also kills, as Jared Diamond eloquently described in his book “Collapse” about civilizations which died after exceeding natural resource limits. Sandy’s damages and 2012’s record heat are still within the spanking phase. We have yet to face death, and America can, perhaps, with radical efforts change behaviors and live on comfortably for a long time.
America has been truly exceptional in setting high consumption standards for the rest of the world, and the world has followed us. I went to Indonesia last month to visit the Indonesian family I had lived with as an exchange student in 1959 and was shocked by Java’s monstrous traffic jams where automobiles had been rare. It took our driver six hours at to take us the 100 miles of so from Jakarta to Bandung, with all-to-wall cars and thousands of motorcycles weaving in and out of car traffic like water bugs on a lake’s surface. Jakarta now has huge, multi-story malls, and swarming crowds shopping for luxury goods seem almost as common as in Dallas. Our consumer society has changed the world, and I hope that a strong, environmentally-inspired move away from worshipping more consumption in the U.S. can be persuasive for Indonesia and the rest of humanity.


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