Sometimes I wonder what leaders of the past would have to say about problems of the present. We are coming up to the “President’s Weekend” holiday and by a karmic coincidence, the State of the Union address falls on Abraham Lincoln’s birthday, so I’ve had Lincoln on my mind. Were he alive today, how might President Lincoln attack something as ferociously complicated–and seemingly intractable–as climate change?
Here are a few answers speaking to us from Lincoln’s speeches and letters in the 1850s:
“Determine that the thing can and shall be done, and then we shall find a way.”
The president must understand that the first step to solving such a complicated problem as climate change is the heartfelt declaration that there is a problem, and that it has a solution. Call it intention. Call it focus. Call it overriding will. But call it like it is: a looming disaster that we must face. And from such determination will come solutions.
“With public sentiment, nothing can fail; without it, nothing can succeed.”
About as clear an expression as I have ever read of how important it is to engage American citizens on the problem of climate change.
Lincoln makes a powerful argument for the use of what is often called “the bully pulpit” — a term I don’t much like. When Theodore Roosevelt coined the phrase, “bully” was an adjective that meant terrific, or superb. Bully means something else nowadays. Americans don’t need more bullying on climate change — we’re getting too much of that from the deniers who are cynically dynamiting the very foundation of our democracy, an informed public.
We do need intelligent passion from our president. We need persuasive rhetoric, based on sound science, from all society’s leaders, I might emphasize. At the rate things are changing, we cannot afford to exempt anyone with influence from this battle. Americans are craving intelligent, straightforward, partisan-free public discourse about fighting climate change, “the thing can and shall be done.”
“By all means, don’t say ‘if I can,’ say “I will.”
There can be no room for doubt about this fight, no tolerance for conditional thinking. Failure to solve this means disaster. Eyes on the prize. Always.
“Work, work, work is the main thing.”
The solution to a big problem usually doesn’t materialize magically. We must roll up our sleeves. “The mode is very simple, though laborious, and tedious,” acknowledges Lincoln. When we get overwhelmed by the enormity of a problem, we give up, walk away. We forget that accomplishing anything significant takes hard, steady work.
“You must remember that some things legally right are not morally right.”
Right now, it is legal to pollute our atmosphere in so many ways. Our laws haven’t yet caught up with all the science. But greenhouse gas pollution jeopardizes the planet for future generations. Pollution is morally bankrupt.
“Let us have faith that right makes might.”
We must not be distracted by feeble compromises that will ultimately doom our efforts. We must create a global scale plan of attack against the emissions that are heating up our planet, on a trajectory for cataclysmic warming that will compromise the quality of life for all of us, everywhere around the world.