Barack Obama’s Bridge to the 22nd Century

by Clint Wilder on October 29, 2008

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Of all the great moments in Barack Obama’s election-night victory speech in Chicago, my favorite was his tale of the 106-year-old Atlanta woman who had voted that day. Obama reflected on all the changes that Ann Nixon Cooper has seen in her lifetime, and then looked ahead:

Let us ask ourselves — if our children should live to see the next century; if my daughters should be so lucky to live as long as Ann Nixon Cooper, what change will they see? What progress will we have made?

2104 is the year that ten-year-old Malia Obama would turn 106, and her younger sister Sasha would do so in 2108. What will the nation and the world look like then? Given the planetary forces of climate change, our new president-elect seems to understand that decisions and actions that we take or don’t take now will impact the answer to that question.

I have often written, here at the Huffington Post and for the Clean Edge web site, about the need for political and business leaders to take a long-term view. Greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere and oil deposits in the ground know nothing of election cycles and quarterly earnings reports. In today’s world, we are dealing with very large forces that will have big consequences over long time frames. It is rare and inspiring to hear a politician (and make no mistake, Barack Obama certainly is that) take a moment to contemplate a 100-year window.

Obama’s long view is not just a rhetorical flourish. His “new energy economy” proposals are all about building the foundation for a future where we wean ourselves off fossil fuels, and he specifically has called for an 80 percent reduction in GHGs by 2050. Climate scientists will debate whether that is enough of a reduction soon enough, but it’s still a 180-degree turn from the Bush administration’s head-in-the-sand approach.

This all makes me very hopeful that the president-elect understands the magnitude and long-term scale of our climate and energy challenges. The rumored consideration of Robert F. Kennedy Jr. to head the EPA is strong evidence of that too — if anyone can restore the true meaning of the “Protection” part of the agency’s name from its current status as a bad joke, it is Kennedy.

I understand that election night oratory is a long way from the political trench warfare and daily policy challenges that President Obama will face as soon as they’re sweeping up after the inaugural balls in January. (Actually, given that President Bush appears to be the lamest of all ducks, that has already started for Obama). But when was the last time a political leader even asked us to think about what our world will be like in 2104?

We must do just that, if we care about the world where Malia and Sasha’s great-grandchildren — and ours — will live. President Obama has just four years, or possibly eight, to lead the United States and the world down a dramatically different path of energy use and carbon emissions as we move toward the 22nd century. The challenge could not be more urgent, and we got off to a good start last Tuesday night with a new leader who shared a very long-term vision.

Like the man says, this really is our moment

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