Occasionally in US history, we have been faced with a particularly difficult problem for which we nearly all knew what the correct solution was but found it nearly impossible to implement in a timely manner. For example, even before the American Civil War was fought, most well-read Americans, in the South as well as in the North, surely realized that the institution of slavery would eventually have to be discontinued if the USA hoped to be one of the premier countries of the world. Can you imagine, for example, that some of our states today might have remained potential customers in the sale of those 300 girls recently kidnapped in northern Nigeria? By one means or another, the institution of slavery would certainly have been discontinued in the US by now if it had not been removed relatively quickly during the American Civil War.
A similarly obvious but difficult issue faces us today. Most well-read people know by now that the heat content of our planet is rapidly increasing due largely to the combustion of fossil fuels. In addition, they know that if something close to the human-friendly conditions mankind has enjoyed during the last seven millennia are to continue into the next century and beyond, we must stop CO2 emissions as soon as we can – at least within the next few decades. But yet, we are presently stuck in a state of grossly insufficient action while the only score card that matters – the level of CO2 in the atmosphere – still increases at an increasing rate every year. Our planet has never seen such rates of CO2 increase before and we know that changing CO2 levels have been the primary cause of temperature changes in the past. The task at hand is taunting and little headway is being made on a scale large enough to matter. Thus, it is useful to consider more closely how America’s previous problem of enormous magnitude – the institution of slavery – came to be so suddenly addressed after the election of Abraham Lincoln.
First, it is important to note that the US President who is universally credited with abolishing slavery in the US did not actually set out to do that when elected in 1860. President Lincoln’s stated intention at that time was simply to set a new path for the US by which slavery would not be allowed to spread into the new states being added. While Lincoln abhorred slavery, he was not yet an abolitionist when first elected. He believed that slavery should not be precipitously abolished in the southern slave states by a federal decree but that it would be abolished eventually and gradually over time as that was increasingly perceived by all to be the “correct” and “just” thing to do. The slave states did not accept Lincoln’s offer of compromise in 1860, however, and chose instead to try to withdraw from the Union – an act that Lincoln would not tolerate.
Only after two years of horrific warfare over the question of Southern succession, Lincoln decided to expand the significance of the Civil War by taking an action on the slavery issue. By use of his power as Commander and Chief of the military during a time of war, he issued the Emancipation Proclamation by which all slaves living in the rebellion states would be free as of Jan. 1, 1863. This then led to a migration of former slaves from those rebel states to the North where they joined the Union forces. This greatly strengthened the Union side and caused the North and border states to be more sympathetic to the plight of American slaves. Thus in 1865, the 13th Amendment was passed by votes of 2/3 majority in both the US Congress and House, thereby freeing all slaves within the US. Thus, the institution of slavery came to be abolished throughout the entire USA far sooner than expected because Lincoln set his country on a new path in 1860 directed at the long-term solution to the problem.
I think and hope that our current President, Barack Obama, is following in the footsteps of Abraham Lincoln as he approaches our nation’s greatest unresolved problems. On the national health care issue, for example, he has already managed to move our country onto a new path towards universal coverage. That first act, merely of setting a new path, is likely to be of far more historic importance than any specific details of the subsequent plans that have emerged so far. Continuous refinements and improvements are sure to follow.
The primary concern of this blog, however, is climate change and on that front I again think and hope that President Obama is proceeding in a Lincolnesque manner. With respect the termination of fossil fuel use, Obama is not yet an abolitionist. He resides still in the “all of the above” camp in which he and his administration has so far promoted the development of both fossil-fuel-based and alternate (wind, solar, geothermal and nuclear) sources of energy. As in the case of slavery in 1860, however, most of us probably realize that distinctly harmful habits should eventually be eliminated. That is, we simply must stop adding CO2 to our atmosphere each year and the only way to do that is to stop ALL conversions of geological carbon (fossil fuels) to biological carbon (CO2). The dire need for this course of action is amplified by the fact that once added, we have no means of removing that excess atmospheric CO2. It stays there for many centuries.
Therefore, it should be clear to all that Obama’s present “all of the above” strategy must gradually change into one in which “all of the above” no longer includes fossil fuels. The suppliers of fossil fuels know this, of course, and for their own financial reasons are likely to push back even on Obama’s initial “all of the above” strategy – just as the slave states of the South did in 1860 in response to the compromise Lincoln offered them. Everyone knows what happens when a ball gets rolling in a correct and needed direction and the multitude invested in our reserves of fossil fuels are undoubtedly doing their best to prevent that initial motion.
To fully appreciate the great resistance to the abolition of fossil fuel use today, one needs only to reflect on the following facts. The Earth today still contains at least 10 times more fossil fuels than have been used, to date, over the entire Industrial Age. If we use more than a very small portion of that huge remaining supply, we will be setting a course for future genocide on an unprecedented global scale. On the other hand, if and when we do manage to agree to leave most of those fossil fuels in the ground, that act will cause the greatest loss of personal wealth ever experienced in the USA since the abolition of slavery. While the fossil fuels in the ground presently have considerable value, we must now declare them to have essentially no value and, in addition, assign a stiff penalty to their continued use.
Since the financial stakes associated with the elimination of carbon emissions and the communal need to do just that are both so high, a world-wide battle of some sort very likely lies before us. Whatever form that battle takes, it will be one that simply must be won by the one and only side that is supported by science. In response to the impacts of Man on our planet, Mother Nature will call the shots and, to our knowledge, she will pay no attention whatsoever to our personal preferences concerning politics or economics. Without victory in this conflict, there will be no level of survival on which viable political and financial systems can be built. So, President Obama, please do continue to hold your course. Enormous beneficial changes occurred in the USA under President Lincoln’s wise and steady leadership and that can happen again.
In 1860, President Lincoln first drew his line specifically at the spread of slavery to the new states. He did not allow it and that simple, but forceful act changed everything. You, President Obama, can draw your line at the spread of North America’s vast supplies of fossil fuels throughout the world. You should block all such actions beginning with a cancellation of the pending Keystone XL pipeline project. That one clear act of hindrance to an outdated and unsustainable path could change everything.
“Hope isn’t the kind of thing that you can say either exists or doesn’t exist. It’s like a path across the land that’s not there to begin with, but when lots of people go the same way, it comes into being.” Chinese writer, Lu Xun.