Societal change usually happens slowly, even once it's clear there's a problem. That's because, in a country as big as the United States, public opinion moves in leisurely currents. Change often requires going up against powerful, established interests, and it can take decades for those currents to erode the foundations of our special-interest fortresses. Think civil rights, gay marriage, equal rights for women.
Even facing undeniably real problems — say, discrimination against gay people — one can make the case that gradual change is the best option. Had some mythical liberal Supreme Court declared, in 1990, that gay marriage was now the law of the land, the backlash might have been swift and severe.
With climate change, however, there simply isn't time to waste. It's not a fight, like gay marriage, between conflicting groups with conflicting opinions. It's a fight between human beings and physics. And physics is entirely uninterested in human timetables. Physics couldn't care less if precipitous action raises gas prices or damages the coal industry in swing states. It couldn't care less whether putting a price on carbon slowed the pace of development in China or made agribusiness less profitable.
Physics is implacable. It takes the carbon dioxide we produce and translates it into heat, which causes ice to melt and oceans to rise and storms to gather. And unlike other problems, the less you do, the worse it gets.
We could postpone healthcare reform a decade, and the cost would be terrible — all the suffering not responded to over those 10 years. But when we returned to it, the problem would be about the same size. With climate change, unless we act fairly soon in response to physics' timetable, it will be too late.
It's not at all clear that President Obama understands this.
That's why his administration is sometimes peeved when they don't get the credit they think they deserve for tackling the issue in his first term in office. The measure they point to most often is the increase in average mileage for automobiles, which will slowly go into effect over the next decade.
That's precisely the kind of gradual transformation that people — and politicians — like. But physics isn't impressed. If we're to slow the pace of climate change we need to cut emissions globally at a sensational rate, by something like 5% a year.
It's not Obama's fault that that's not happening. He can't force it to happen, especially with Congress so deeply in debt to the fossil fuel industry. But he should at least be doing absolutely everything he can on his own authority. That might include new Environmental Protection Agency regulations, for example. And he could refuse to grant the permit for the building of the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline.
So far, however, he's been halfhearted at best when it comes to taking action: The White House overruled the EPA, for example, on its proposed stronger ozone and smog regulations in 2011. And last year Obama approved opening up the Arctic for oil drilling while selling off vast swaths of Wyoming's Powder River Basin to coal miners. His State Department flubbed the global climate-change negotiations — it's hard to remember a higher-profile diplomatic failure than the Copenhagen summit. And now Washington rings with rumors that he'll approve the Keystone pipeline, which would deliver 900,000 barrels a day of the dirtiest crude oil on Earth. Almost to the drop, that's the amount his new auto mileage regulations would save when fully implemented.
If he were serious, Obama would be doing more than just the obvious and easy. God knows he had his chances in 2012: the hottest year in the history of the continental United States, the deepest drought of his lifetime, and a melt of the Arctic so severe that the federal government's premier climate scientist declared it a "planetary emergency."
In fact, he didn't even appear to notice those phenomena, even as people in the crowds greeting him along the campaign trail were fainting from the heat. Throughout campaign 2012, he kept declaring his love for an "all of the above" energy policy where, apparently, oil and natural gas were exactly as virtuous as sun and wind.
Only at the very end of the campaign, when Superstorm Sandy seemed to present a political opening, did he even hint at seizing it. His people let reporters know on background that climate change would now be one of his three priorities for a second term (or maybe, post-Newtown, four). That's a start, I suppose, but it's a long way from concrete action.
And anyway, he took it back at the first opportunity. At his post-election news conference, he announced that climate change was "real," thus marking his agreement with, say, President George H.W. Bush in 1988. In deference to "future generations," he also agreed that we should "do more." But addressing climate change, he added, would involve "tough political choices" and he would not, he said, "ignore jobs and growth simply to address climate change."
The president must be pressed to do all he can — and more. But there's another possibility we need to consider: Perhaps he's simply not up to this task, and we're going to have to do it for him, as best we can.
Those of us in the growing grass-roots climate movement are moving as fast and hard as we know how (though not, I fear, as fast as physics demands). Thousands of us will descend on Washington on Presidents Day weekend for the largest environmental demonstration in years. And young people from 190 nations will gather in Istanbul, Turkey, in June in an effort to shame the United Nations into action.
We also need you. Maybe if we move fast enough, even this all-too-patient president will get caught up in the draft. But we're not waiting for him. We can't.
Bill McKibben is a professor at Middlebury College and founder of the global climate campaign 350.org. A longer version of this piece appears at tomdispatch.com.