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The Sciences

Obama's MIT Speech on Energy and Climate: A Critical Take

The IntersectionBy Chris MooneyOctober 26, 2009 6:07 PM

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Guest post by Karen Aline McKinnon* The day after the Pew Research Center came out with the report that "Fewer Americans See Solid Evidence of Global Warming," President Barack Obama came to MIT to speak about America’s future in clean energy technology. Sitting in Kresge Auditorium before the speech was set to begin, concerned about the direction–-or lack thereof-–of domestic and international environmental policy, I hoped that Obama’s speech would provide daring new direction and a necessary mandate to move away from a fossil-fuel based economy. Rather, the speech was highly and falsely optimistic in these times of uncertainty regarding climate change policy. Obama stood before energy scientists and environmental activists drawn primarily from research institutions in Cambridge and proudly claimed that those who believe that climate change is not an issue are being marginalized. And so it may seem to those of us ensconced in bastions of science and liberal thinking. But the significance of the timely Pew report cannot be understated: Rather than being marginalized, the percentage of Americans who think global warming is a very serious problem moved from 44% in April 2008 to 35% today; the percentage who believe it is not a problem increased from 11% to 17%. Worse still, only 36% of Americans believe the Earth is warming due to human activity, and a full 33% believe it is not warming at all. Obama would have done well to critically assess the pulse of America on climate change before so optimistically claiming that, for Americans, there is "no question" that we must change our energy system because of climate change. Speaking at MIT, Obama apparently forgot about the difference between technological solutions and political ones. Drawing on his infinite capacity for hope, he stated that it is simply a "dangerous myth" that our political system is broken and cannot successfully address climate change. With this statement, I hoped that Obama would address the current quandary: As we inch closer to the Copenhagen talks, hopes for a comprehensive international climate agreement have been dashed, more than in part due to the inability for Congress to agree on a climate bill in time. Instead, he spoke straight to his audience and re-emphasized the ability for scientists at institutions like MIT to pioneer new frontiers in technology that can assist in addressing climate change. Technological solutions, however, mean nothing without a political infrastructure to support their implementation, and it is this political system that may be ill equipped to meet the political challenges posed by climate change. Indeed, it may be a more dangerous myth to have blind faith in the ability for our democratic process to address the problem in a timely enough manner. Obama built his campaign on hope and optimism; both of these qualities are admirable and necessary. But the time may have come for our president to speak frankly to the public about the increasingly severe threats posed by climate change and the very real problem that our political system does not seem able to address many of those threats. Climate change is unlike any other problem faced by Americans before, because it has a timescale imposed by the Earth system that humans cannot adjust at will. It’s high time for Obama to be honest with Americans about these realities, and combine his optimism with a heavy dose of truth. Only a true understanding of the severity of the problem, presented by a popularly-elected leader, will induce Americans to think globally and seriously about climate change. * Karen Aline McKinnon is a senior at Harvard studying Earth and Planetary Science with a focus on climate.

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