Skip to main content

Obama, turn climate 'priority' into leadership

By Michael Brune, Special to CNN
January 29, 2013 -- Updated 1830 GMT (0230 HKT)
The United States is making progress, Michael Brune says, moving away from fossil fuels to clean energy such as wind-powered turbines.
The United States is making progress, Michael Brune says, moving away from fossil fuels to clean energy such as wind-powered turbines.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Michael Brune: Things seems grim on the climate front, but there's reason for optimism
  • He says Obama address called climate change a priority, but U.S. has already made gains
  • U.S. has led in lowering carbon emissions, and coal-fired plants are on the wane, he says
  • Brune: U.S. must embrace clean energy, reject Keystone XL pipeline, move from fossil fuels

Editor's note: Michael Brune is executive director of the Sierra Club.

(CNN) -- The past year was a rough one for the climate, so why am I so hopeful about climate disruption?

Here in the United States, last year was officially the hottest on record, with wildfires, droughts and a superstorm that devastated parts of the Northeast.

And the United States was not alone in its climate misery. Near-permanent flood conditions in Bangladesh displaced hundreds of thousands of people. Russia, China and Indonesia also experienced massive floods in 2012. Arctic sea ice reached another record low.

So it was both fitting and welcome that President Barack Obama, in his inaugural address, named addressing climate disruption as both a top priority for his administration and a moral imperative for humankind. If we care at all about the world we bequeath to future generations, we cannot ignore this simple fact: Either we leave at least two-thirds of proven fossil-fuel reserves in the ground, or we alter our planet's climate beyond all recognition.

Become a fan of CNNOpinion
Stay up to date on the latest opinion, analysis and conversations through social media. Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion and follow us @CNNOpinion on Twitter. We welcome your ideas and comments.



Al Gore called this an "inconvenient truth," but "unthinkable outcome" might be a better way of thinking about it. We simply cannot -- must not -- allow the worst to come to pass.

And we won't.

Environmentalists want Obama to steer clear of Congress on climate change

The Sierra Club is committed to doing absolutely everything it can to push Obama to follow through on his Inauguration Day eloquence and forcefully lead our nation (which will in turn lead the world) in responding to the climate challenge.

On February 17, in Washington, we and our allies in the climate movement will hold the largest climate rally in U.S. history. That day will mark a new crest in the rising tide of public demand for action, beginning with a definitive rejection of the Keystone XL pipeline that would enable the exploitation and export of Canada's tar sands oil.

No one in Washington, from Congress to Pennsylvania Avenue, will fail to understand that Americans take seriously their moral obligation to address the climate crisis. But, important as it is to acknowledge the reality of climate disruption, it forms only part of the picture. The other, more welcome, face of this crisis is its enormous opportunity. We already know how to meet this challenge. In fact, we've already begun to succeed -- and to an extent that too few people know about.

For instance, did you know that the United States has led the world in reducing carbon emissions for the past six years? Or that our carbon dioxide emissions have declined to 1992 levels and are still trending lower? The biggest reason for this extraordinary development is our move away from the dirtiest energy source on the planet: coal. Although it once dominated electricity generation in the United States, coal now supplies 40% or less of our power and is projected to be at 30% by the end of this decade.

The Sierra Club's Beyond Coal campaign, which began a little more than 10 years ago in response to the Bush administration's plan to build hundreds of coal-fired power plants, has successfully opposed the vast majority of proposed new plants and helped to retire 130 of the dirtiest, most-polluting existing coal plants in the United States.

Poll: Do Americans agree with Obama on climate change?

During the past three years, we have secured the retirement of a staggering 50,000 megawatts of coal. That's equivalent to the annual carbon emissions from nearly 60 million cars. The benefits aren't limited to climate, either. Taking 50,000 megawatts offline saves lives and improves our quality of life. Coal pollution causes more than 13,000 premature deaths each year in the United States, and according to a 2011 study by the Harvard School of Public Health, the annual health costs of coal exceed $220 billion.

Obama calls for action on climate change
Obama: Focus on jobs, not climate change
Political solution to climate change

But important as 50,000 fewer megawatts of coal may be, equally significant are the more than 55,000 megawatts of clean wind and solar energy that are online in the United States. Both the wind and solar industries have been growing dramatically. Even more encouraging, though, is the huge, still largely untapped potential for renewable technologies. Last year, a study by the Energy Department's National Renewable Energy Laboratory concluded that renewable energy sources "could adequately supply 80% of total U.S. electricity generation in 2050."

Here is where the fears provoked by a climate crisis must be matched to the hope promised by a clean-energy future. Our urgent need to stop burning fossil fuels necessarily means we will move faster to develop and adopt renewable technologies that can deliver the energy we need without the toxic consequences that have been inseparable from fossil fuels since the Industrial Revolution. As we leave fossil fuels behind, we will find ourselves "forced" to live in a world with cleaner air and water, better health and unspoiled wilderness.

The president noted that the path toward clean energy "may be long and sometimes difficult." But in the end, it will be a story not of sacrifice but of salvation. We've already taken our first steps toward a better future. All we need to do now is stay on the path.

This means holding polluters accountable, rejecting proposals to import dirty fuels such as tar sands crude, stopping the rush of fossil fuel exports, doubling down on the production of clean energy and protecting our people, land, water and wildlife from the consequences of fossil fuel development and climate disruption.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Michael Brune.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1329 GMT (2129 HKT)
Cornell Belcher says the story of the "tea party wave" in 2010 was bogus; it was an election determined by ebbing Democratic turnout
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 2012 GMT (0412 HKT)
Les Abend says pilots want protocols, preparation and checklists for all contingencies; at the moment, controlling a deadly disease is out of their comfort zone
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 0336 GMT (1136 HKT)
David Weinberger says an online controversy that snowballed from a misogynist attack by gamers into a culture war is a preview of the way news is handled in a world of hashtag-fueled scandal
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1223 GMT (2023 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says Paul Krugman makes some good points in his defense of President Obama but is premature in calling him one of the most successful presidents.
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 0221 GMT (1021 HKT)
Conservatives can't bash and slash government and then suddenly act surprised if government isn't there when we need it, writes Sally Kohn
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1228 GMT (2028 HKT)
ISIS is looking to take over a good chunk of the Middle East -- if not the entire Muslim world, write Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider.
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1300 GMT (2100 HKT)
The world's response to Ebola is its own sort of tragedy, writes John Sutter
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 2033 GMT (0433 HKT)
Hidden away in Russian orphanages are thousands of children with disabilities who aren't orphans, whose harmful treatment has long been hidden from public view, writes Andrea Mazzarino
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 1722 GMT (0122 HKT)
When you hear "trick or treat" this year, think "nudge," writes John Bare
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 0442 GMT (1242 HKT)
The more than 200 kidnapped Nigerian schoolgirls have become pawns in a larger drama, writes Richard Joseph.
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 1345 GMT (2145 HKT)
Peggy Drexler said Amal Alamuddin was accused of buying into the patriarchy when she changed her name to Clooney. But that was her choice.
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 2043 GMT (0443 HKT)
Ford Vox says the CDC's Thomas Frieden is a good man with a stellar resume who has shown he lacks the unique talents and vision needed to confront the Ebola crisis
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 0858 GMT (1658 HKT)
How can such a numerically small force as ISIS take control of vast swathes of Syria and Iraq?
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 1342 GMT (2142 HKT)
How big a threat do foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq pose to the West? It's a question that has been much on the mind of policymakers and commentators.
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 1221 GMT (2021 HKT)
More than a quarter-million American women served honorably in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Now they are home, we have an obligation to help them transition back to civilian life.
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 2027 GMT (0427 HKT)
Paul Begala says Rick Scott's deeply weird refusal to begin a debate because rival Charlie Crist had a fan under his podium spells disaster for the Florida governor--delighting Crist
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 0407 GMT (1207 HKT)
The longer we wait to engage on Ebola, the more limited our options will become, says Marco Rubio.
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 1153 GMT (1953 HKT)
Democratic candidates who run from President Obama in red states where he is unpopular are making a big mistake, says Donna Brazile
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 0429 GMT (1229 HKT)
At some 7 billion people, the world can sometimes seem like a crowded place. But if the latest estimates are to be believed, then in less than a century it is going to feel even more so -- about 50% more crowded, says Evan Fraser
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1653 GMT (0053 HKT)
Paul Callan says the Ebola situation is pointing up the need for better leadership
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 2245 GMT (0645 HKT)
Nurses are the unsung heroes of the Ebola outbreak. Yet, there are troubling signs we're failing them, says John Sutter
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 1700 GMT (0100 HKT)
Dean Obeidallah says it's a mistake to give up a business name you've invested energy in, just because of a new terrorist group
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 2301 GMT (0701 HKT)
Fear of Ebola is contagious, writes Mel Robbins; but it's time to put the disease in perspective
October 14, 2014 -- Updated 1744 GMT (0144 HKT)
Oliver Kershaw says that if Big Tobacco is given monopoly of e-cigarette products, public health will suffer.
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 1335 GMT (2135 HKT)
Stop thinking your job will make you happy.
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 0208 GMT (1008 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says it's time to deal with another scandal involving the Secret Service — one that leads directly into the White House.
October 14, 2014 -- Updated 1125 GMT (1925 HKT)
Americans who choose to fight for militant groups or support them are young and likely to be active in jihadist social media, says Peter Bergen
October 13, 2014 -- Updated 1303 GMT (2103 HKT)
Stephanie Coontz says 11 years ago only one state allowed same sex marriage. Soon, some 60% of Americans will live where gays can marry. How did attitudes change so quickly?
October 14, 2014 -- Updated 2004 GMT (0404 HKT)
Legalizing assisted suicide seems acceptable when focusing on individuals. But such laws would put many at risk of immense harm, writes Marilyn Golden.
October 13, 2014 -- Updated 1307 GMT (2107 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says the issues are huge, but both parties are wrestling with problems that alienate voters
October 13, 2014 -- Updated 2250 GMT (0650 HKT)
Mel Robbins says the town's school chief was right to cancel the season, but that's just the beginning of what needs to be done
October 11, 2014 -- Updated 1543 GMT (2343 HKT)
He didn't discover that the world was round, David Perry writes. So what did he do?
ADVERTISEMENT