Response to President Obama's Climate Talk – Time to Scale Up Citizen Empowerment

Response to President Obama's Climate Talk – Time to Scale Up Citizen Empowerment

I’ll leave it to those who track policy developments to analyze what President Obama’s climate plan means for power plants, coal developments, natural gas, nuclear and pipelines (i.e. KC Golden’s post on Climate Access).  But I do have a few thoughts on what the climate change talk at Georgetown University on Wednesday means for the larger climate conversation.

First of all, Obama made a number of very strong statements about the reality and urgency of climate disruption. This is the type of strong narrative we  have been long waiting for a US president to adopt. Obama called out the moral imperative and the need to prepare for climate – some of the very things our community of climate engagement researchers and practitioners has been promoting. Perhaps most importantly, Obama called on citizens and leaders from across sectors to work together on this issue that is so much larger than a traditional environmental concern.

At the same time, the need to engage Americans across the country in addressing climate change is still disconnected from the solutions being proposed. Many are disappointed that nuclear and natural gas are on the table and the fate of the Keystone XL pipeline is still unclear. While arguments about the need for transition fuels may sound rational and appealing as well as the idea that in the short term, we can manage the environmental tradeoffs around ongoing fossil fuel developments as we move to clean energy; there is something missing in the debate about  tradeoffs and that is ultimately about offering the public a say and choice around the type and scale of energy developments we invest in.

Take for example distributed energy. Like the local food movement, there is excitement and momentum around the idea of addressing energy needs at the community level by increasing investments in rooftop solar, allowing for local ownership and control of renewable energy, etc. This is not just important because of the carbon reduction potential, but because it represents a choice that benefits people where they live with solutions that take into consideration health and well-being. Given we know there is a huge efficacy gap and lack of hope when it comes to addressing climate change, increasing opportunities for citizen to generation and distribute clean energy is as much about scaling up empowerment and dialing up the hope meter.

Climate and energy solutions that benefit people and communities don’t need to appear small scale or lacking of a grand vision like sending someone to the moon. As Obama said in his speech, there are many important climate actions that won’t be visible and grand, but he did miss an opportunity to paint a picture of some of the large scale opportunities that exist for driving innovation as well as nation building. For example, what would America look like if we were to develop a 100% clean energy grid that stretches across the country to meet demand by tapping into distributed energy? This is a vision being painted in countries more proactive in moving to clean energy and addressing climate disruption.

Overall, the conversation was moved forward yesterday by establishing a much clearer, more compelling narrative around the threat we face. Now it is time to advance  and amplify solution stories.

Photo via (cc) Flickr user chesapeakeclimate