President Obama’s decision to make climate change and energy a centerpiece of his Inaugural Address has taken political analysts and partisans on both sides of the issue by surprise. Of the half dozen specific issues raised in the speech, only the economy, foreign affairs, and the social safety net had as many words devoted to them.
Why would a President who has recently made only glancing reference to climate change double-down on one of the most contentious issues of his first Administration? A second failure on climate would go down as a signature feature of the Obama legacy—and not a positive one.
Hurricane Sandy and Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s clarion call on climate change just days before the 2012 election were undoubtedly part of the reason for the President’s decision. But the speech itself provides a deeper explanation. With his young daughters standing a few feet away, Obama declared that failure to respond to the threat of climate change “would betray our children and future generations.” No President has ever faced an issue whose consequences will last so long. Historians a century now could see it as his most tragic legacy.
The President is also rightly convinced that energy transformation has the capacity to be the great economic engine of our century—equal to railroads in the 19th century and the I.T. revolution in the 20th. Government-industry partnerships—and national leadership—were essential to both. As Obama said, “we cannot cede to other nations the technology that will power new jobs and new industries.”
To be sure, building a new energy economy “will be long and sometimes difficult.” But without U.S. presidential leadership, it would be impossible. President Obama’s singular commitment to the climate and energy issue will have an enormous impact on decision makers across the country—and on national leaders around the globe.
Chris Flavin is President Emeritus at Worldwatch Institute.