Photo credit: Supreme Court Pediment by Flickr.com user Kevin Harber

Obama Needs Churchill 101

In times of great trial, the best politicians strive for Churchillian rhetoric – or better yet, simply quote Churchill.  And in tough times, no quote resounds more than Churchill’s memorable assessment, in late 1942, of the Battle of El Alamein, the first major British victory in WW II: “Now this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.” Well, let me suggest that President Obama needs a bit of Churchill 101.  For upon signing the stimulus bill last week our new president stated: “Today does mark the beginning of the end” of our economic problems.  Winston the statesman would certainly have harrumphed at this.  The key to his memorable formulation is the implication of under-promising - and then over-delivering.  It has just the right hint of hope.  I fear that Obama’s ill-advised ‘beginning of the end’ may unduly raise expectations about the pace of our economic turn-around. Moreover, the real opportunity for Obama to channel his inner Churchill was during his Congressional address this week.  During that speech, he declared:  “I ask this Congress to send me legislation that places a market-based cap on carbon pollution and drives the production of more renewable energy in America.”   It was after this remarkable demand that distant echoes of 10 Downing Street should have been evoked.  For Obama’s words – “send me legislation that places a market-based cap on carbon pollution” – are, perhaps, the end of a beginning. I’m referring here to the climate movement, the surging groundswell that will hit a new peak this weekend with Power Shift 2009 and the Capitol Climate Action.  It’s a movement that was sparked two decades ago – think of Jim Hansen testifying before the Senate in the hot summer of 1988 and the publication in 1989 of Bill McKibben’s End of Nature – and which truly caught fire this decade, thanks to the leadership of college students and a diverse range of other citizens.  It’s a movement that, taking on the world’s most daunting challenge, has had one major demand above all others here in the United States: federal legislation that accelerates the coming of a clean-energy economy.  With his words this week, Obama called for such legislation. My first reaction (like so many of the good climate folks listening to the address) was: “Hallelujah!”  And then I thought of Churchill.  For yes, this moment certainly represents a victory for Hansen, McKibben and other climate visionaries like Billy Parish, Jessy Tolkan, Van Jones, Majora Carter, and Mike Tidwell (as well as their public-sector allies, including Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jay Inslee and Deval Patrick, to name a few.)  Despite all of the frightening science – there’s always frightening science – and President Obama’s essential belief in acting as facts merit, I am certain that we would not have the push for such legislation without their inspired leadership and the leadership of so many others. But at the same time, it’s no more than an “end of the beginning” victory.  Savor it again: a popular American president has called for major global-warming legislation.  But now let’s acknowledge all that stands in our way: the coal lobby’s arsenal; the reach of bloviators like George Will; the threat of filibuster by Senator Inhofe.  And these are just obstacles to the major climate legislation in 2009.  To follow up on the promise of such legislation, to rewire our global economy: this will be the lifelong cause of our newest greatest generation. When historians document the climate movement in the years ahead, how will they assess this phase of the fight against global warming?  Let’s hope that they will also paraphrase Churchill, who years after the war wrote of that key 1942 battle: “Before Alamein we never had a victory. After Alamein, we never had a defeat.”  At Power Shift this weekend, let’s lay plans for never, ever again having a defeat. ——— Jonathan Isham is Luce Professor of International Environmental Economics at Middlebury College in Vermont and co-editor of Ignition: What You Can Do to Fight Global Warming and Spark a Movement. Visit his website.