About halfway into his State of the Union speech, the president took a break from business as usual to ask us to think about a brand-new problem. He said we should heed the unanimous opinion of scientists as well as our own inner thermostats. We're not just imagining it; the planet is heating up. In fact, the 12 hottest summers on record happened in the last 15 years.
His solution? Let's get to work on "bipartisan market-based solutions" and at the same time "take action to reduce pollution" (which is a symptom, Mr. President, and not the problem, the latter being the thing you mentioned before, those rising temperatures). Let's also "prepare our communities for the consequences of climate change," seeing as how we can't stop it. Let's see if we can somehow, with the help of job-creating emergency shelters and mile-high dikes we're gonna build, ride out all those inevitable wildfires and tsunamis.
Hey, we can do this!
I always tense up when the president goes all visionary and bipartisan at the same time. It's not that I don't prefer the cheerful Obama to the scold. But I'd been waiting all night -- make that four years -- for the man to say something comprehensive or even just coherent about global warming. The fact is, the cheapest way to stop it is to stop spewing carbon into the atmosphere, not tomorrow but now, because if you kill the ecosystem that sustains you ... well, you've heard it before. Just not from the president.
A huge climate rally is raging in D.C. as you read this, sparked by a decision the president will make -- any day now -- to either approve or reject the oil industry's request to complete the Keystone XL pipeline, which is slated to carry the filthiest crude oil on the planet from Canadian tar sands down through the American breadbasket to ports in Texas for passage not to customers in the United States, as we've been falsely promised, but the Far East.
Tar-sands oil requires massive amounts of energy to procure and refine. That's before it's burned. A leak in the pipeline could further degrade the already polluted (with fossil-fuel-based fertilizer runoff) groundwater in our country's agricultural heartland. Keystone will create scant American jobs while adding billions to the balance sheets of American multinationals whose targeted growth markets in the Third World will increasingly supply their most valued workers as well.
This decision is pivotal. It will either establish the United States as the leader in slowing fossil-fuel dependence, or it will demonstrate with breathtaking clarity that, contrary to our own socially responsible self-image, we are at our core a rogue nation, quite possibly the most irresponsible in world history.
This decision is important also because it represents a rare opportunity for this president to leapfrog the whole messy bargaining process that has been his scapegoat for the continued existence of banks "too big to jail," as one pundit put it, to Guantanamo, to guns. For once he has a golden opportunity to not just preach about right and wrong, but to stand up to those same adversaries who keep derailing his dreams for a better America and to throw a sizable wrench in their plans.
On the fate of Keystone, the president has the final say. No horse-trading required. It's open field running to "meaningful progress" (Obama's term) not through market-based solutions but by confronting the problem head-on.
By "problem," I mean both warming and that other menace: corporate manipulation and greed. Obama's oil-lobby-sponsored opponents in Congress can't block his Keystone decision with a never-ending filibuster. If he says no on Keystone, that's it. Done. And in that one gesture he can silence the doubters who think his awakenings on gay rights and immigration reform (for example) were inspired more by political expediency than conviction.
"He's gonna cave," I e-mailed a friend as the president wrapped up his spirited energy spiel with one more pie-in-the-sky solution -- a government-sponsored research think tank that would speed those market-based solutions. (Wonder if Exxon Mobil's rumored geo-engineering research to redirect solar rays might qualify for a grant.) I knew that Keystone was a go when Obama let it slip that "naturally" he'd be granting a whole slew of new oil and gas permits as part of the energy independence effort.
Kicking the can down the road is something this president has gotten pretty good at, and politically speaking it has served him well. I guess it should come as no surprise that he's willing to bet our planet's future on the hope that we can have it both ways on this one, too.
Bonnie Blodgett is a St. Paul writer.