A seemingly permanent sense of crisis has engulfed our political world – Benghazi, the sequester, the hunt for rogue IRS agents. President Obama must break free if he is to govern effectively. He can do so by speaking forcefully on the most profound crisis confronting this nation:
The threat of climatic disruption and the absolute necessity of deflecting it if this generation is to have a future.
He must call forcefully on the scientific community to speak to the conclusions our research has made clear.
We are the only ones with that information. There is no other source. No one else can tell the public – or our politicians – about our worrisome state of affairs. No one else can warn society what we risk, or explain how this weird, unpredictable, extreme weather is just a foretaste of what is to come.
We need our president to lead, and he has so far blown it, just as surely as President Bush did before him and President Clinton before him and Bush pére and Ronald Reagan before them all.
Let's be clear about the urgency: Obama is the last president who will have an opportunity to deflect a first-class disaster. With every day that passes, we make further commitment to substantially uncontrolled further warming.
Obama had a chance to change the debate in April, speaking before an overflow crowd gathered in the newly renovated National Academy of Sciences building.
Expectations were high. There has never been a moment when a sitting president faced more intense scientifically clear and obviously dangerous challenges to the public welfare than today.
The global addiction to fossil fuels has been allowed to run its course beyond the limits of safety, to the moment when the climatic change is tipping beyond the point of reversibility. Past that point, the feedbacks will be in control and the Earth will warm by many degrees despite our attempts to mitigate the process. The seas will rise, continents will bake and flood, chaos will reign. The timing for these changes is not the indefinite future. It is now, today, conspicuous, and it is the next decades and the lifetimes of people now living.
We have powerful resources in the form of scientific insights and talents and energy. But we must be led and fed with political insights and skill, and that is where Obama has failed us.
It is true that this president has been repeatedly rebuffed by a House of Representatives dominated by a faction of Republicans who believe in neither government nor science and who have done their best to dismantle both.
No call to arms
But no one should yield to such vandalism, least of all a president. And a president addressing the pre-eminent scientific institution can assume he is among staunch friends and supporters. He can and must call on those colleagues to join him in a rapid national, and ultimately international, shift away from fossil fuels toward a world of renewable energy.
I was in the audience that April evening. And I heard no such call to arms.
President John F Kennedy, standing before the same academy 52 years ago, spoke of the public role scientists must undertake to bolster the advancement of America as a nation.
"All of the questions we must decide now are extremely sophisticated," he said in 1961. "All of these involve questions that confound the experts. For those of us who are not experts, and yet must be called upon to make decisions which involve the security of our country ... we must turn in the last resort to objective, disinterested scientists who bring a strong sense of public responsibility and public obligation."
Alas, President Obama offered none of that. It was friendly talk. No challenge, no inspiration, no hope beyond soft platitudes and pabulum. He urged scientists simply to generate "science-based initiatives to help us minimize and adapt to global threats like climate change."
On the most important scientific issue of our generation, Obama gave the day, and possibly the world, to the Republicans and their congressional and corporate friends.
George Woodwell is a founding trustee and distinguished scientist at the Natural Resources Defense Council and emeritus founder and director of the Woods Hole Research Center in Massachusetts. This essay is adapted from a post initially published on Woodwell's blog, The Nature of Our House.