To Deserve Comparisons To Lincoln, Obama Must Confront The Carbonocracy
President Barack Obama embarked on his second term with his inspiring inaugural promise to “respond to the threat of climate change” lest we “betray our children and grandchildren.” He can begin to turn ambition into action at this year’s State of the Union on February 12, the birthday of Abraham Lincoln.
Of all the bold political moves made by Obama, few are as audacious as his deliberate invitations to be compared to our nation’s greatest president Obama announced his candidacy for president at the site of Abraham Lincoln’s “House Divided” speech and was sworn into office on Lincoln’s Bible. Like Lincoln, President Obama is a great orator. But Lincoln is revered not for his great speeches, but for his actions at the moment of America’s greatest crisis. For President Obama to be remembered as a great leader, he must act decisively on the existential threat of our era, climate change.
It thus makes sense to look to Lincoln for guidance. In the decades before the Civil War, Americans struggled to reconcile deep qualms about slavery with the wealth it brought to the young nation. The country’s political class was dominated by the entrenched power of the wealthy southern “slaveocracy” committed to the preservation and the expansion of their “peculiar institution.” Failing to challenge the power of King Cotton, weak presidents instead accommodated the slave power. James Monroe ratified the Missouri Compromise, Millard Fillmore agreed to the Compromise of 1850, Pierce and Buchanan dithered as Kansas bled – until Lincoln drew a hard line against slavery’s expansion into the West.
Speaking on the steps of the Illinois State Capitol, two years before he was elected President, Lincoln described the urgency of the threat facing the Union. “I believe this government cannot endure, permanently, half slave and half free, I do not expect the Union to be dissolved — I do not expect the house to fall — but I do expect it will cease to be divided. It will become all one thing or all the other.” Lincoln’s greatness derives from his willingness to force the nation to admit that freedom and slavery could not coincide — that continued inaction, indecision, and compromise meant the end of the nation. Through the nation’s deadliest war, against widespread demands for another round of compromises, another expansion of slavery, Lincoln held firm.
Today, we have again spent too long ignoring a looming crisis, one that threatens not just our nation, but the world. In 1863, the fate of the world’s only democracy was imperiled by the sin of slavery. Seven score and three years later, the fate of all the world’s people is imperiled by the poisoning of the climate. Over the course of two hundred years, hundreds of billions of tons of carbon have been dumped into our atmosphere, incurring a debt that is now being called for remittance.
Continuing on our fossil-fueled path, scientist Kevin Anderson warns, will take us into a world that is “incompatible with organized global community.” Already, New Orleans and New York, Nashville and Minneapolis, Vermont and Kansas have faced unprecedented floods, fires, and storms, with lives lost and families torn asunder. The maelstrom is now upon us.
Once again, our politics are dominated by a wealthy elite, this time a ‘carbonocracy’ of fossil-fuel corporations. Their money is freely spent to corrupt our democracy; Obama’s inaugural ceremonies this year were brought to us in part by a $260,000 contribution by Exxon Mobil. The profits of these companies depend on their capacity to convince Americans, against all evidence, that climate change is not an urgent problem, that the expansion of offshore drilling, tar-sands pipelines, and natural-gas fracking are acceptable compromises, that the challenge of global warming can be put off for another generation.
If we do not change course now, and instead continue to increase the burning of coal and oil as multinational energy companies desire, we will fundamentally transform the very land we live on, the water we drink, the air we breathe in ways that are beyond our ken.
To defend Americans from the devastating impacts of climate change, Obama must recognize that the fossil-fueled economy is a moral wrong in our society that requires action today. “The path towards sustainable energy sources will be long and sometimes difficult,” Obama said on Monday. But if he aims to be our generation’s Abraham Lincoln, Obama must do what is hard. If Obama doesn’t present a plan on climate, one that severs our ties to a morally unfathomable economic system of planetary destruction, with the fixed idea that it must and will come to an end, the union will be lost.