The president's words scanned well: "We, the people, still believe that our obligations as Americans are not just to ourselves, but to all posterity." That future, President Obama declared in his inaugural address, required that this nation respond "to the threat of climate change, knowing that the failure to do so would betray our children and future generations."
Conceding that "some may still deny the overwhelming judgment of science," he affirmed what so many scientists, policymakers, and citizens have long argued -- that we can no longer dismiss the consequences of climate disruption, which include, in the Chief Executive's words, "the devastating impact of raging fires, and crippling drought, and more powerful storms."
Those are strong words from a president who in his first term did not push Congress to enact legislation that might have helped us better adapt to and mitigate the ramifications of a warming Earth. Perhaps the recent data indicating that 2012 was the ninth hottest year on record, the 36th in a row of above-average temperatures, melted some of his reticence.
Whatever the cause, the second inaugural is more forceful in its one paragraph about the environment than his entire first inaugural was; in that 2009 address, he did not even broach this tipping-point issue once.
Instead, his words were then framed by the still-deteriorating global economy:
...everywhere we look, there is work to be done. The state of our economy calls for action, bold and swift. And we will act, not only to create new jobs, but to lay a new foundation for growth. We will build the roads and bridges, the electric grids and digital lines that feed our commerce and bind us together. We'll restore science to its rightful place, and wield technology's wonders to raise health care's quality and lower its cost. We will harness the sun and the winds and the soil to fuel our cars and run our factories...
The language of growth and recovery trumped any vision of the larger planetary issues confronting us. Even as he alluded to renewable sources of energy, for example, Obama stripped these technologies of any connection to their life-affirming capacity to reduce our carbon footprint or serve as badly needed replacements for fossil fuels. Avoided too was any acknowledgement of their potential to resolve a related pressure climate change poses: without direct and bold action, will humanity long endure on the face of this earth?
The second inaugural did not make a much stronger case except in this regard -- it actually mentioned climate change, giving it a legitimacy Obama refused to grant it four years ago. Whether these more vital acknowledgments gain substance through legislation, whether they will initiate a shift in the baffling political climate that has enabled Democrats and Republicans to act as if changing our rapacious consumption is tantamount to treason, is anyone's guess.
Waiting and speculating is not enough, argues Bill McKibben, the founder of 350.org, and author of Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet. He has been at the forefront of climate-change activism, and shortly after the president concluded his second inaugural address emailed supporters: "even if the President is sincere in every syllable, he is going to need lots of backup to help him get his point across in a city dominated by fossil fuel interests. And, given the record of the last four years, we know that too often rhetoric has yielded little in the way of results."
To hold the president to his words, and with the related hope of stopping the Keystone XL tar-sands pipeline project (a matter of even more pressing concern, as Nebraska's governor Dave Heineman has just approved its construction through his state), McKibben has called for a march on Washington on Presidents Day, February 17th.
Whatever the results of that particular action, a president's second term can be a source of considerable change. Take the case of Theodore Roosevelt, who after completing the majority of the first term of the assassinated William McKinley, then swept into office on his own power in 1904.
Often thought to be our most environmentally focused president, it was only after this election that he mounted a strong campaign to encourage Congress to pass an impressive array of laws that fundamentally altered our relationship to natural resources and scenic beauty.
In 1905, he signed off on the creation of the U.S. Forest Service and the national forest system; by the time he left office in March 1909 there were more than 150 million acres of national forests and grasslands. With the 1906 passage of the Antiquities Act, he gained another tool by which to protect sacred sites and luminous landscapes, including Gila Cliff National Monument and the Grand Canyon. Other spectacular terrain became national parks, among them Mesa Verde, and he designated as well a flock of federal bird preserves, 51 in fact (only two of which were established before 1905). Roosevelt's actions remain a powerful legacy.
His rhetoric is just as compelling. "Defenders of the short-sighted men who in their greed and selfishness will, if permitted, rob our country of half its charm by their reckless extermination of all useful and beautiful wild things sometimes seek to champion them by saying that 'the game belongs to the people.' So it does; and not merely to the people now alive, but to the unborn people."
In making this case in his post-presidential book A Bird-lover's Holidays in the Open (1916), Roosevelt drew off the maxim of his one-time chief forester, Gifford Pinchot who argued that conservationists must be guided by the notion of the "greatest good for the greatest number in the long run." That logic only worked, Roosevelt asserted, if Americans recognized that the "greatest number" applies to "the number within the womb of time, compared to which those now alive form but an insignificant fraction. Our duty to the whole, including the unborn generations, bids us restrain an unprincipled present-day minority from wasting the heritage of these unborn generations." Because of this principled commitment, the conservation movement is "democratic in spirit, purpose, and method."
It's time for President Obama to reach a similar conclusion about climate change, and as forcefully argue that immediate action on this key environmental issue will strengthen democracy even as it will protect our progeny's capacity to call this land home.
Should he do so, Obama will have taken an important first step in fulfilling his inaugural pledge to use any innovative means possible to "maintain our economic vitality and our national treasure -- our forests and waterways; our croplands and snowcapped peaks. That is how we will preserve our planet, commanded to our care by God."
Char Miller is the Director and W.M. Keck Professor of Environmental Analysis at Pomona College, author of "Public Lands, Public Debates: A Century of Controversy" (Oregon State University Press), and editor of "Cities and Nature in the American West." He comments every week on environmental issues. Read more of his columns here