In 1979, in the face of an increasingly belligerent Arab world and rapidly rising oil prices, President Jimmy Carter used such an address to exhort his fellow Americans to conserve energy – drive less, use less energy in their homes, develop new energy technologies. It didn’t work.
A year later, after the political debacle in Iran, Ronald Reagan swept to power pledging to restore America’s pre-eminent place in the world and Carter suffered a humiliating defeat.
The Deepwater Horizon explosion and the subsequent environmental disaster is President Obama’s moment of crisis. For his predecessor George W Bush, it was 9/11. So all eyes will be on the Obama this evening (2am on Wednesday in Oslo) and it’s pretty high stakes.
Tuesday, President Obama travelled to the Gulf to take a close look at what is going on. It was his fourth visit to the Gulf Coast since the spill began. At the Coast Guard Station in Gulfport, Mississippi, Obama looked out across the calm water stretching like a grey sheet into the distance.
With temperatures around 30 degrees Celsius and high humidity, the white-sand beaches appeared pristine, if largely empty. Hurricane season is just about to start – there is much fear about the environmental consequences if one or more hurricanes develop in the Gulf. The President heard a lot from local people who had lost their jobs because of the closure of the fisheries, hotels and the sport fishing business. The people in the region, tough though they are, are hurting, and they are looking for help. Is this an opportunity for the President?
While on the Gulf, the President discussed compensation claims. “We talked about claims so that people in Mississippi and throughout the region are adequately compensated for the damages done,” Obama said. “There are still problems with it.”
Administration officials said over the weekend that Obama plans to force BP to establish a fund that would cover billions of dollars of future claims. Congressional leaders have suggested that the fund, which White House officials do not expect BP to oppose, should hold as much as $20 billion.
Tuesday, the President said that he has “begun preliminary conversations” with BP about how to structure claims quickly and fairly. “We’re gong to continue to hold BP and anyone else responsible for the disaster they created accountable,” Obama said . He described the government’s response to what he called an “ongoing assault,” saying: “We are meeting the largest environmental disaster in our history with the largest environmental response in our history.” He warned of “painful” times ahead for local businesses.
So policy-wise, what might Obama do to get the ball rolling? Here are some suggestions.
* Call on the Senate to pass a companion to the House’s cap-and-trade bill (passed in 2009).
* Stand up to political opponents who are so afraid of losing their jobs and/or rising prices that they won’t vote to protect their children from catastrophes like this.
* Demand that Congress approve a massive increase in the gasoline tax, with rebates to poor families, and use the rest of the money to invest in mass-transit and new technology.
Those would be a good start.
There are plenty who oppose proposals like these that will require real sacrifices by many Americans. But climate change and the effects of addiction to oil and coal are the greatest environmental and ultimately economic threats to the United States and the rest of the globe. The American people need inspiration and leadership to tackle these problems.
Perhaps this is Obama’s moment.
Jonathan Temple is the director of Bellona USA.