Arctic Blast

They should teach this speech in schools.

Future generations are going to look back upon the date of August 31, 2015 and thank President Obama for stating, in clear, bold and stark terms, the immorality of carbon pollution and the moral necessity of taking action to defend the only planet we have. His speech to the “Global Leadership in the Arctic: Cooperation, Innovation, Engagement and Resilience” conference in Anchorage, Alaska was a soul-stirring call to action, and a testament to the power of words to awake the international conscience.

Excerpts cannot do this speech justice. It must be watched, in full, to appreciate its grace and power:

This was far better than his overrated address to the 2004 Democratic National Convention, far better even than his 2008 “A More Perfect Union” speech on race relations. This speech was every bit as majestic as his 2008 and 2012 election-night victory speeches, and his 2009 and 2013 inauguration speeches. It was that damn good.

President Obama’s speech, and his historic visit to the Arctic to bear witness to the impacts of human-caused climate change, are laudable. Not many presidents would have the fortitude to invest so much political capital in addressing this pertinent issue. Not many presidents would have the courage to stand up for climate action in the face of a relentless assault by acolytes of the multi-billion-dollar fossil-fuel industry. Not many presidents would have the strength to say that those who come after us deserve a healthy and habitable planet.

Yes, Obama has not always led effectively on climate. Joseph Romm of Climate Progress noted in 2013 that Obama dropped the ball on a number of occasions:

Obama’s failure of [climate] leadership extends far beyond “arm-twisting” and “sweet-talking.” Here are the key failures, as I see them (feel free to add your own):

* Pushing health care reform first when [federal cap-and-trade legislation] was already moving and far more important for the future of the nation and the world.

* Pushing health care reform in such an incompetent fashion it took a full year, lost public support for that reform and sweeping pieces of legislation in general, energized the opposition, and generally further poisoned a poisonous political atmosphere.

* Failing to insist that the [Senate version of the cap-and-trade bill] be able to be passed through the reconciliation process, which requires only 51 votes and prevents a filibuster — in retrospect, this was almost certainly the single biggest strategic mistake (though not Obama’s alone).

* Never keeping Democratic Senators in line, and, for instance, never making clear that there was definitely going to be a vote on the climate bill, as they knew there would be for health care. This allowed moderate Democrats to publicly bad-mouth the bill and say that there was no path to 60 votes, which essentially sent the message to moderate Republicans crucial to the bill’s passage that they would be taking a massive political risk supporting any bill.

* Never giving one single major national speech [in his first term] on the most important issue of our time, and even muzzling his Cabinet and Administration from talking about climate. Obama demonstrated with, for instance, the fiscal cliff, that the bully pulpit can move public opinion or at least solidify opinion that is broad but perhaps not deep.

* Insisting on a communications strategy for everyone involved in pushing the climate bill that rejected any talk about the problem the climate bill was designed to address — see “The Sounds Of Silence: Team Obama Launched The Inane Strategy Of Downplaying Climate Change Back In March 2009.”

Obama has made some missteps in his second term as well, promoting the climate-controversial Trans-Pacific Partnership and, shall we say, taking his sweet time on the Keystone XL pipeline. However, it’s clear that Obama has now found his climate footing–and your children and grandchildren will praise him for becoming the climate warrior so many hoped he would be when he first assumed office.

Leaders usually aren’t appreciated or understood in their time. Obama has been catching grief for having given final approval for Shell to drill in the Arctic—a decision that was borne of a lack of legal alternatives, a point that apparently has yet to be disproved by his critics:

Aides also point out that while Mr. Obama has opened some new federal waters to drilling, including off the southeastern Atlantic coast, his hand was in part forced on Arctic drilling by his predecessor. The George W. Bush administration was the first to sell federal oil drilling leases in the Chukchi Sea, and Shell, which bought its leases from the Bush administration for $2.1 billion, then applied to the Obama administration for a permit to drill.

Advisers to Mr. Obama say that legally, the administration probably had no choice but to process that permit. If he had wanted to block the drilling, Mr. Obama could have faced legal challenges from Shell and may also have had to buy the leases back from the company at a loss to taxpayers.

Obama doesn’t deserve blame for the legally compelled decision on Shell. He does deserve blame for other failures on climate—but he also deserves praise for his successes, including last year’s historic climate deal with China. His speech and his visit to the Arctic should be remembered. His compassion and caring should be remembered as well.

UPDATE: In a shocker, Michigan’s Republican governor, Rick Snyder, announces that he will comply with President Obama’s Clean Power Plan. More from Kate Sheppard and the Natural Resources Defense Council.

SECOND UPDATE: I was honored to discuss President Obama’s Arctic trip yesterday with Ted McIntyre of the Massachusetts Climate Action Network. Plus, more from the White House.

D.R. Tucker

D. R. Tucker is a Massachusetts-based journalist who has served as the weekend contributor for the Washington Monthly since May 2014. He has also written for the Huffington Post, the Washington Spectator, the Metrowest Daily News, investigative journalist Brad Friedman's Brad Blog and environmental journalist Peter Sinclair's Climate Crocks.