Many Americans have long waited for the President to clarify and deepen his position on how the United States should move forward on climate change. In the years since the George W. Bush administration abandoned the Kyoto Protocol, American engagement on the issue has been uneven, and voters have been only episodically motivated by concerns about Hurricanes Sandy and Katrina or about wildfires and droughts. President Obama's last-minute intervention in the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in Copenhagen in 2009 was but an isolated incident, and did not indicate any kind of broader pattern of American leadership on the issue. Throughout 2012, pundits on the left noted the total absence of climate change on the presidential campaign trail. The bigger picture--that locally concentrated effects like storms or droughts are part of a systemic, global problem--has not been adequately captured by the popular imagination nor by a political discourse driven primarily by electoral concerns.
Americans concerned about climate change have hoped for a high-profile speech like the one the President delivered today. The speech, however, seems to indicate that the rhetoric of climate change has changed in significant ways. When the UNFCCC began in 1992, its primary purpose was to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. This goal has been at the center of any and all serious policy conversations about climate change. But now, despite the fact that the first plank of President Obama's plan is to "cut carbon pollution in America," the new watchword is "prepare." The other two planks of the plan the President laid out were to "prepare the United States for the impacts of climate change" and to "lead international efforts to combat climate change and to prepare for its impacts." Get ready, the Administration's new strategy indicates, because climate change is already here.
This is certainly prudent governance. The cost, severity, and likelihood of climate-related harms demand that we prepare for them. And although I celebrate the President's use of his office to reinsert climate change into a complacent national discourse, there are important ethical questions lurking behind this intensified emphasis on preparation. Will the acceptance that climate change is already here make us too ready to acknowledge it as an inevitability? Will the effort to prepare for the impacts of climate change divert our resources and attention away from our ability or willingness to deal with its causes? How can we strike a proper balance between preparing ourselves and protecting future generations from worser harms?
These are difficult questions that will be treated differently in different political and physical environments. Resiliency measures are quite pressing in heavily glaciated regions, in semi-arid agricultural regions, and in large coastal cities. Perhaps the rationale behind preparation, that of self-interest, can more effectively motivate political action on climate change than can the concern for future generations. Even so, it seems likely that a climate policy shaped by self-interest and the need to prepare ourselves for near-certain eventualities succeeds only by according a lower moral priority to those who will inherit the effects of our emissions today.