Obama’s Legacy: Curing the World of Its Fossil Fuel Addiction?

As the U.N. climate summit opens in Qatar, will the leader of the free world finally address the crisis of our times?

Can this man save the planet? (Photo: Larry Downing/Reuters)
Amy Luers, Director of Climate Change at Skoll Global Threats Fund.

Last night I saw Steven Spielberg's new film, Lincoln. For just over two hours I was drawn into the life and mind of one of America's greatest leaders as he pushed for the passage of the 13th Amendment to abolish slavery. "We must cure ourselves of slavery," Lincoln said, as "abolishing slavery settles the fate for all coming time, not only the millions now in bondage but of unborn millions to come."

Lincoln's moral commitment and laser focus enabled him to transform the course of history. It took almost 150 years, but it was Lincoln's leadership that made it possible for Barack Obama to become the first African American president of the United States of America.

Now it is Obama's turn. President Obama has the opportunity to transform the course of history by "curing" society of our addiction to fossil fuels. Transitioning the world to a low-carbon economy will settle the fate not only of millions afflicted by air pollution today but also for millions of unborn children from the escalating devastation of climate change. 

Obama entered his first term with clear global support for his moral leadership and vision, with celebrations across the globe and the honor of the Nobel Peace prize. His reelection provides him with a chance to solidify his legacy as a transformative leader, by following through on his reelection speech conviction that "we want our kids to grow up in an America…that isn't threatened by the destructive power of a warming planet." 

Today we are embarking on Obama's first opportunity to show Americans and the world that he is serious about this commitment. This week the next round of the United Nations climate change negotiations begin in Qatar. The stakes are high. The window for avoiding the two-degree Celsius rise in global average temperature, which has been accepted by over 100 nations as dangerous, has all but closed.

According to the International Energy Agency, "with current policies in place, global temperatures are set to increase 6 degrees Celsius, which has catastrophic implications." Meanwhile, international development and security agencies are beginning to look seriously at a "four degree world," as the new reachable target that we might have to settle for.

This year marks the 20th anniversary of international climate negotiations, with little success and many expecting continued failure at reaching an agreement.  However, an appearance by President Obama, with a clear commitment to aggressive and legally binding emission reductions at home and strong support for an ambitious global treaty by 2015, could shift the entire dynamic of the international negotiations. If Obama showed leadership in Qatar, he could set the stage for changing the course of history—as Lincoln did 150 years ago.

It will not be easy.

At home, Obama faces many in Congress who fear that restricting fossil fuel consumption would destroy the economy. President Lincoln faced similar pressures from opponents of the 13th Amendment who feared that ending slavery would lead to the collapse of the economy. While “Honest Abe” did not have a clear answer for how abolishing slavery might impact the economy, he knew slavery was wrong and he pushed forward to end it. 

Lincoln’s moral determination and political acumen brought freedom for the slaves and a historical victory for the nation. To succeed in addressing the climate crisis, Obama will similarly need to be driven by a moral conviction and guided by civic finesse. In the end, history will judge Obama on how he handles the climate crisis.   

Mr. President, for your children and the millions of unborn, let this be your legacy.

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