OPEN LETTER TO PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA
December 16, 2009
Dear Mr. President:
Four years ago at the UN climate negotiations in Montreal, I was part of a delegation of hundreds of youth observers from across the country and thousands from across the globe. In a meeting we held with the lead U.S. negotiator at the time, I told him we knew he had been sent to the negotiations by an administration that would not lead the world to a strong, just global climate treaty. I promised him that we would go home and work harder than we had ever worked to elect the administration that would. This week, four years and one presidential election later, I am asking you to prove in Copenhagen that we have made good on that promise.
My own trip to these UN climate negotiations is not my first trip to Copenhagen; I studied abroad here as an undergraduate. During that year, I made another trans-Atlantic trip to a climate conference, taking off from Copenhagen and landing on the East Coast to co-coordinate the 2nd Annual Northeast Climate Conference at Harvard University and to surprise my friends and allies with my participation. I knew then that combating climate change would be about unwavering commitment and dramatic leaps of faith. I wanted to show that I believed in the growing climate movement so much that I was willing to drop everything and pay to cross oceans and work without stop or sleep for days to support it. I wanted to make the point that that is the very least we have to be willing to do for big ideas and for each other. The 2nd Annual Northeast Climate Conference brought together over five hundred youth climate leaders from across the Northeast—an unprecedented number at that time. Only five years later, Powershift 2009 united over twelve thousand youth climate leaders to flood the halls of Congress to call for bold, comprehensive climate legislation this year and for the US to lead the world to a clean and equitable energy future.
About these so-called “youth leaders,” better just called “leaders:” I regret that what is truly unprecedented political savvy and policy smarts on the part of so many young leaders is sometimes discounted because for whatever reason their deliberate idealism is still not seen as a serious strategy. But in truth, youth disappointment with the United States’ position here in Copenhagen is far from a symptom of some growth process from starry-eyed naivety to mature political pragmatism. These youth understand the U.S. political context only too well. They have read the draft legislation and watched committee markups, talked to constituents in districts across the country, and lobbied in the halls of Congress and even here at the negotiations. These youth come from the rust belt and the Bible belt, from inner cities and from farms. Some come from families that have lost their livelihoods in the latest economic crisis. Some plan to run for elected office; some are already in office. They have knocked on countless doors in communities across the nation to get out the vote for clean energy and climate justice champions. In 2008, they knocked on those doors for you.
These youth understand only too well the politics of U.S climate action in international context. Here in Copenhagen, they have heard appeals on the basis of the Senate vote count and the way the American public just does not get it, been warned of the specter of Chinese emissions run amok, heard the cautionary tale of Kyoto, and been told that after eight years of inaction, your administration is simply limited in what it can accomplish so soon.
These youth have cried together in the hallways of the negotiations over the last week and a half. No small number of their allies on country delegations and in the “adult” civil society community who have labored in this process for years and decades have been crying, too. In a moving speech on the floor of the negotiations last week, a delegate from the threatened island nation of Tuvalu spoke of his own tears. I wonder what it is like for him to know the day is likely coming when his family can never go home again. I wonder what it is like, in the face of current global geopolitics, to be effectively powerless to stop it—or even pressured not to speak up.
I wonder at the fact that here in Copenhagen, Tuvalu and the Maldives and countries across Africa and beyond are speaking up and demanding to be heard all the same. There is quite a difference between understanding and acquiescing, between a moment of despair and the moment of defeat. We understand the politics, Mr. President. We simply refuse to accept that they must be so.
Last year, eight of my friends and personal heroes launched 350.org, a global network uniting change agents in communities in over 180 countries for the single largest climate action in history. On October 24th 2009, fifteen thousand people rallied in the streets of Addis Ababa to call for a Copenhagen agreement to reduce carbon in the atmosphere to a safe level, 350ppm. In the Maldives, President Nasheed led his ministers in an underwater cabinet meeting. In Kunar, Afghanistan, U.S. soldiers spelled out “350” in sandbags. And on, and on. As one of 350.org’s co-founders has pointed out, those people did not turn out for a Copenhagen failure or for a celebration of greenwashed mediocrity. They turned out for hope and justice and science and community and a number good enough to save the world.
I am not the first to say this, but it is a strange kind of international process that allows its outcome to hinge almost entirely on a small part of one country’s government—namely, on your leadership and on the U.S. Senate. I know you did not ask to be in the position of making or breaking a global climate treaty. I do not think any of the so-called current climate “swing senators” ran for office with the idea that they would one day be largely responsible for the fate of global civil society, either. But as you yourself have already demonstrated so many times over, real leadership is rarely about responding to normal circumstances or reasonable expectations. Far more often, it is about acting in the face of situations you did not wish for and do not deserve to have to face. And it is about using privilege in the service of those who do not have it in equal measure.
I am asking that this Friday in Copenhagen, you publicly articulate your commitment to using all the powers and resources at your disposal to deliver a short-term climate target rooted in science rather than in politics, a legally binding architecture with strict compliance requirements for the United States, and finance for the developing world orders of magnitude larger than the commitment currently on the table. Fairly or unfairly, I am essentially asking you to exert the singular leadership necessary to protect all nations and all peoples’ right to survival in the face of the mounting climate crisis.
In addition to addressing this letter to you directly, I am posting it publicly on itsgettinghotinhere.org. It seemed the most fitting place; launched at the Montreal negotiations, itsgettinghotinhere.org has chronicled over four years of real climate leadership by youth and citizens across the US and across the world. It is that very kind of leadership I am asking of you now.
Mr. President, I know that what I am asking is improbable. But you have already moved the United States to achieve improbable and even nearly impossible things. So, I am asking of you nothing more than you have already proven capable of. And nothing more than I and the U.S. youth here in Copenhagen are fighting for ourselves—now, and for the rest of our lives.