FABIENNE ANTOINE CAME ALL the way from Atlanta to Washington, D.C., to hold President Obama to his word.
The twenty-one-year-old political science major at Spelman College says she was psyched when, during his second Inaugural Address, the President made a bold moral claim for taking action to address global warming, telling the nation, "We will respond to the threat of climate change, knowing that the failure to do so would betray our children and future generations." But she worries that political pressures will temper the President's passion. So she and friends formed a group called Sustainable Spelman and organized some fifty young women to charter a bus and drive nine hours through the night to join the Forward on Climate rally in the capital.
"This rally is to make sure he carries out what he said, that he does what he promised," Antoine, who is also president of Spelman's Young Democrats club, told me. "There needs to be more accountability for what these oil companies are doing, and more policies that support clean energy."
Antoine's guarded optimism was the prevailing mood among the estimated 35,000 people who gathered on the National Mall on the Sunday of Presidents Day weekend for what organizers said was the largest U.S. climate demonstration to date. (Similar protests occurred in at least eighteen cities around the country the same day.) Kids in strollers and elderly folks in wheelchairs endured biting, below-freezing winds and a mud-clogged field at the base of the Washington Monument to call on Obama to take strong action to slash U.S. greenhouse gas emissions and put the United States on the path to a renewable energy future.
"There is no Planet B" was among the most popular hand-lettered placards as the crowd marched around the White House, at times erupting in chants of, "Hey, Obama -- we don't want no climate drama!" One family marched with an Earth flag stamped with the words "Too Big to Fail" above the planet. "Texas Baptists for Clean Energy," read a banner carried by a group of eight women who had traveled to the demonstration from Nacogdoches.
The Sierra Club, 350.org, and the Hip-Hop Caucus organized the rally to put a face on the two-thirds of Americans who, according to recent polls, say they want government action to address climate change. The purpose was to demonstrate to the President that he has the political backing to challenge the powerful fossil fuel industry.
Environmentalists say that what Obama chooses to do on climate change will, more than anything else, define his Presidential legacy. While recognizing the importance of other priorities like gun control, immigration reform, and health care, they say that fifty years from now Obama will be remembered for his action -- or, they fear, his inaction -- on global warming.
"If he doesn't do anything, then for the rest of the century all the rest of his accomplishments will be wiped out by floods and storms," former White House green jobs adviser Van Jones said to me before the demonstration began. "There won't be a twenty-second century to judge him."
Obama mostly disappointed greens during his first four years in office.
Some progress was made, to be sure: The 2009 stimulus bill included about $90 billion for various clean energy and green jobs programs, and last year the President put in place rules that will nearly double the fuel efficiency of cars and trucks by 2025.
But the White House put little to no political muscle into the 2010 effort to get a comprehensive climate bill through Congress. The President's leadership during the BP oil spill was lackluster, and he hesitated to exercise EPA authority to rein in emissions. And Obama's call for an "all-of-the-above" energy strategy that included mythical "clean coal" made many greens distrustful. "A deficiency of ambition," is how Sierra Club executive director Michael Brune described the President's first term.
But since his reelection, a newly emboldened Obama appears to have made a pivot on global warming. His strong words at the inauguration ("We will preserve our planet, commanded to our care by God") and during his State of the Union address ("If Congress won't act soon to protect future generations, I will") have sparked new optimism among environmentalists.
Now comes the hard part: compelling the President to translate his rhetoric into real policy achievements.
"Mr. President, we have heard what you said on climate," Brune thundered to the crowd at the Forward on Climate rally. "We have loved what you said on climate. But, Mr. President, what will you do on climate?"
If we have to wait on Congress to tackle global warming, we're cooked.
House Republicans, especially, are dominated by the willfully ignorant who continue to deny climate science and by the shills who have been bought off by the carbon barons. All eyes, then, are on the President.
"The polluting industries have Congress pretty much locked up," Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, a Rhode Island Democrat who has been a leader on environmental and climate issues, said to me before the rally. The President "has been largely AWOL on this issue in his first term, especially as a public voice. That has changed -- he has found his voice. He owns the keys to the kingdom on climate, and I hope he uses them to unlock executive and regulatory powers."
In the absence of Congressional action, what could Obama do unilaterally to tackle climate change? Quite a number of things, it turns out.
The first major test for the President will come later this spring, when he has to make a decision on whether to grant a cross-border permit for the Keystone XL pipeline. The pipeline, which would transport especially carbon-intensive tar sands oil from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico, became a red-hot political issue in August 2011, when more than 1,200 people were arrested at the White House demanding the President reject the proposal. The President has since greenlighted the southern section of the pipeline, a move that has sparked civil disobedience actions along the construction route. The State Department still has to rule on whether the cross-border section is in the national interest. As Van Jones told the rally crowd, if Obama approves the pipeline, "the first thing it will run over will be the credibility of the President of the United States."
The pipeline is, according to author-activist Bill McKibben, "a fuse to the largest carbon bomb on the planet." Pipeline construction would signal that the United States has no intention of breaking its oil addiction. A hand-made sign at the Forward on Climate rally made the point clearly: "Keystone --> Tombstone."
Environmentalists are also looking to the President to put in place new emissions rules for existing power plants. In 2007, the Supreme Court ruled that carbon dioxide could be regulated by the EPA under the Clean Air Act, meaning that the President already has all the authority he needs to tackle the number one driver of climate change. Last year, the Administration proposed more stringent CO2 standards for new power plants, rules that should be finalized soon. Now greens are pushing the White House to put in place stricter rules for existing plants, many of which still burn coal. A detailed plan by the Natural Resources Defense Council shows how, using existing Clean Air Act Authority, the EPA could reduce power plant emissions by 26 percent by 2020. Given that electricity generation accounts for 40 percent of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, that would be a major step forward.
Beyond denying the Keystone XL permit and establishing new regulations for power plants, there are a slew of smaller things the Obama Administration could do on the climate.
--The Department of Energy could write new standards for buildings' energy efficiency.
--The Department of the Interior could approve more large-scale wind and solar installations on public lands.
--The State Department, now headed by climate champion John Kerry, could initiate bilateral greenhouse gas reductions talks with China.
--The White House could direct the Army Corp of Engineers to consider the global warming impacts of proposed coal and liquefied natural gas export facilities.
--Phasing out the hydrofluorocarbons used in air conditioning systems would also help, as would mandating that natural gas drillers do more to capture the leakage of methane, which is at least twenty times more heat-trapping than CO2.
Altogether, these steps could reduce total U.S. emissions by 17 percent, according to a report from the World Resources Institute.
"The President has the tools and the authority to make emission reductions," the institute's senior associate Nicholas Bianco told me. "It will be interesting to see if he takes advantage of those. The science is clear: The time for taking action is running short."
If Obama were to cross off of his to-do list all of the items above, it would represent an important step forward on climate action -- and yet, environmentalists say, it would still be insufficient.
What's desperately needed is for the President to use the force of his personality and the prestige of his office to elevate climate to a national cause. The President hasn't yet made a single speech focused on the climate threat, and that in itself marks a failure of leadership. All too aware that climate disruptions are accelerating, greens are looking to the President to demonstrate the same enthusiasm that he has shown for gun control since the tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary.
"I think we're witnessing the death of nature, and that makes me so sad," a retired attorney from Manhattan, Ann Lewis Seltzer, told me at the Forward on Climate rally. A lifelong cross-country skier who has noticed how the winters are warming, she was carrying a homemade sign reading, "Save Our Seasons."
"I love President Obama," she said. "I hope he will be brave about what he can do without Congress."
It's not her hope alone. It's the hope of the planet.