Obama Needs to Seize his Sputnik Moment on Climate

Is the United States facing another Sputnik moment and will it rise to the challenge?

In 1957 the Soviet Union launched Sputnik, the world’s first earth orbiting satellite,  touching off a tsunami of concerns that the Communists were gaining a crucial edge in military and space technology. The United States pulled together as a nation with big investments that eventually sparked a raft of technological advances, including the Internet.

President Barack Obama is set to announce new measures on Tuesday to help battle climate change in what many are hoping will be a big, broad vision that will stand as legacy issue for his final years in office.

“This Tuesday at Georgetown University, I’ll lay out my vision for where I believe we need to go: a national plan to reduce carbon pollution, prepare our country for the impacts of climate change, and lead global efforts to fight it,” Obama said in his weekly video address.

Obama will no doubt outline how the planet is in crisis from global warming. But he also needs to sell Americans on how tough new standards on carbon producing sources can lead to  innovation in the broader economy. And in his Sputnik moment, he needs to say the United States risks falling behind its modern day competitor, China, if it does not act.

In the past several weeks China, the world’s biggest greenhouse gas emitter, has launched a series of initiatives, including a trial carbon trading market, tough penalties for big polluters and stronger emission targets for industry.

If you ever want to see what a country looks like that lets industry pretty much do what it wants, just look at China. People cannot breath in Beijing and other cities while lakes and rivers are being destroyed.

With an eye to staying in power, the Chinese elites are realizing they need to take strong action, including capping its carbon emissions. And once you start capping carbon you begin cleaning up your air, you reduce greenhouse gas emissions and you unleash technological change  that will transition the country from last century’s fuel sources – coal, oil and gas.

So does that mean China will win the new energy age race?

It depends on how the United States responds. Obama, no slouch in the speech department, needs to outline a vision and rally people to the cause. But with the economy picking up, there will be loud voices that this is not the time to launch bold new experiments that will push up the price of energy.

He must explain that the United States needs to move away from a carbon based economy and that it’s not just about saving the environment, its setting the course for a more sustainable and vibrant future.

He must first move with a series of executive orders as well as challenge a do-nothing Congress to do something. And when Republicans cry foul, he needs to keep reminding the rest of the population that America did not lose the technological race to the Soviet Union and that it cannot afford to lose this one against China.

In the end if the two biggest carbon polluters could well have a knock down, dragged out Sputnik styled battle over this. And there will be one clear winner: Earth.






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