Posted by: ericgrimsrud | August 26, 2015

Helping Obama get to the Promised Land

President Obama’s views and actions on the issue of climate change so far have been similar to those that were taken by our two leading civil rights Presidents, Abraham Lincoln and Lyndon Johnson.

With the benefit of hindsight, we now know that Lincoln’s sympathies were on the side of the abolitionists who wanted the institution of slavery to be terminated as soon as possible throughout the entire USA.  But we also now know that Lincoln believed he would be more successful in accomplishing that goal if he initially embraced a compromise position – allowing slavery to continue in the deep South but not allowing it to extend to the new western states. Thus, Lincoln initially offered both sides something they wanted while his own views then changed to his preference in response to the horrific events brought on by the American Civil War.  Lincoln was an extraordinarily savvy politician who managed to keep the Union together and to abolish the institution of slavery in just four years – an almost unbelievable feat at that time.

Lyndon Johnson was also an extraordinarily savvy politician who managed to bring the freedom Lincoln had won for the slaves of America to a higher level of ensured equal rights. Johnson had previously been a classic “Dixiecrat”, a southern Democrat in favor of racial segregation. Therefore he had good rapport with many politicians of the southern states whose support he needed to pass long overdue civil rights legislation. By gaining substantial support from southern Republicans and by clever procedural maneuvers, he was finally able to get the Civil Rights Act of 1964 passed.

Another strategy that both Lincoln and Johnson used was to encourage the Abolitionists and the Freedom Marchers of their respective eras to push for their agenda as forcefully as possible. Johnson even advised Martin Luther King to lob strident personal insults at his President – because it would “make his job easier”, Johnson said.

So what makes me think that Obama is following the paths of Lincoln and Johnson in dealing with the present issue of climate change? One is that the sheer magnitude of the climate change problem is so daunting – even more so than those of slavery and civil rights. And while the problem of global warming cannot be solved overnight, major steps forward can be facilitated by ongoing alarming events related to climate change, just as they were during the Civil War and Civil Rights eras. Another reason for thinking that Obama is following in Lincoln and Johnson’s footsteps is that he surely knows the detailed history of the antislavery and civil rights movements like the back of his hand – including the shrewd political maneuverings that finally led to successes.

So, like Lincoln and Johnson, Obama sits in the middle of a conundrum – knowing what final outcome he prefers, but also very well aware of the exceedingly difficult barriers to getting there.  Thus, he regularly provides some “good news” to both sides of the issue so that neither side runs away from the negotiation table.  In his speeches, he very clearly demonstrates that he has no doubt at all about the reality of man-caused global warming and our urgent need of strong action.  And at the same time, he allows environmentally questionable gas and oil explorations to proceed. His recent announcement concerning cuts to coal-powered power plants have probably won him some friends in the environmental corner but did not constitute a major setback for the fossil fuel companies because coal-fired power plants were already being phased out in the USA due to our surpluses of cleaner and higher energy content natural gas. On the issue of the Keystone XL pipeline, Obama seems to be aware of the folly associated with the development of this very dirty and low energy form of fossil fuel, but his actions so far have left the fossil fuel industries thinking that his administration might ultimately allow its construction.

Thus, just as Lincoln was hounded by the abolitionists and Johnson by civil rights advocates, we should continue to hound President Obama for not doing enough to end our use of fossil fuels. Tinkering with cutbacks, grants, offsets, and carbon credits might help a bit but will not be nearly enough to solve to problem. Only the abolition of fossil fuel use will do the job.  If and when President Obama manages to get a stiff carbon tax in place – either in his remaining 18 months in office or from some other post-presidency involvement – only then will he have achieved his equivalent of  Lincoln’s 13th Amendment or Johnson’s Civil Rights Act of 1964.  If he is successful in that endeavor, Obama will be remembered as a skillful politician of the Lincoln and Johnson ilk who somehow did the right thing concerning a seemingly impossible task. Our job is to continue to hound and drive him towards that goal.


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