President Obama’s Legacy Will Unfold Long After He’s Out of Office

Brad Plumer has a fascinating take on how the last two weeks demonstrate what “solving” the climate crisis will look like. First, he points to 4 things that have happened recently:

  1. Canada got a carbon tax
  2. The Paris climate deal went into effect
  3. A new global deal on aviation emissions
  4. A new global deal to phase out HFC’s

As the naysayers among us will point out, implementation of all these efforts won’t get us close to keeping global warming below 2°C. But Plumer goes on to recount a conversation he had with John Fleck, author of “Water Is For Fighting Over and Other Myths About Water in the West.”

When the Western states that rely on the Colorado River first realized they were facing huge water shortages in the future, they didn’t all quickly agree on a deal that solved the entire problem at once. That was way too difficult to coordinate. So, instead, they started out by collaborating on much smaller issues, chipping away at this or that aspect of water policy, building trust over time. That enabled them to slowly work toward a bigger agreement on how best to divvy up and conserve the river’s scarce water.

“At each step, the states built this connective tissue, the institutional plumbing that allowed everyone to find ways of moving forward,” Fleck told me. “That was one of the hardest challenges of writing the book — because there’s not a clear, crisp thing you can point to that solved the problem. It’s a never-ending and ongoing process.”..

If we’re going to solve global warming, it will probably look like that. There will never be one dramatic moment you can point to and say, “Aha! There’s the turning point.” Instead, countries will plug away at small issues, like HFCs, or aviation, or when to hold the next UN Paris meeting, and build momentum over time.

If you think you’ve heard that kind of description of how we’ll solve the climate crisis before, you’d be correct. Prior to finalization of the Paris climate accord, here is what President Obama told Jeff Goodell about what success would look like:

For us to be able to get the basic architecture in place with aggressive-enough targets from the major emitters that the smaller countries say, “This is serious” — that will be a success.

I’m less concerned about the precise number, because let’s stipulate right now, whatever various country targets are, it’s still going to fall short of what the science requires. So a percent here or a percent there coming from various countries is not going to be a deal-breaker. But making sure everybody is making serious efforts and that we are making a joint international commitment that is well-defined and can be measured will create the basis for us each year, then, to evaluate, “How are we doing?” and will allow us, five years from now, to say the science is new, we need to ratchet it up, and by the way, because of the research and development that we’ve put in, we can achieve more ambitious goals…

And the key for Paris is just to make sure that everybody is locked in, saying, “We’re going to do this.” Once we get to that point, then we can turn the dials. But there will be a momentum that is built, and I’m confident that we will then be in a position to listen more carefully to the science — partly because people, I think, will be not as fearful of the consequences or as cynical about what can be achieved. Hope builds on itself. Success breeds success.

As I have written before, the “institutional plumbing” that Fleck referred to are the positive feedback loops for ongoing change…what Obama refers to as momentum (success) that builds on itself.

During the Democratic presidential primary, the candidates’ theory of change was a big topic of discussion. This approach from President Obama to climate change is just one example of his strategy. We see it in how he has initiated change in most of the big challenges we face. For example, here is how Jim Stuart described the way that Obamacare will bend the cost curve over time.

Healthcare providers are moving away from fee-for-service towards just emerging new service and payment forms that will reward quality, coordination of care, and new delivery methods that reduce system utilization. They are moving to EHR [electronic health records] aggressively, which will enable this productivity improving, cost-curve bending, system-wide change. In fact, I believe this highly complex system (medical care delivery) is beginning to self-organize around a new productivity improvement identity; that the cost curve bending is taking on a life of its own, and that the “half-life” of this system change will be long. This is the complete opposite of top-down, command-and-control org change. This is almost the only kind of big org change that works.

We see the same kind of trajectories with issues like income inequality and reigning in the big financial institutions.

When David Nakamura writes that President Obama is focused on preserving his legacy right now, that can sound like a personal ambition fed by his own ego needs. I’m sure that’s part of it and would be understandable. But that’s only part of the equation. The other part is that this is a president who has always embraced the idea that his job is to steer this ocean liner to make a “2 degree turn so that 10 years from now we’re suddenly in a very different place.” In other words, he knows that his real legacy will unfold long after he is gone from office – as long as we recognize the course correction we’ve made and elect someone who will both protect it and build on it.

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly. Follow her on Twitter @Smartypants60 .