As president, his attempts to pass a cap-and-trade law were crushed by almost-unanimous partisan opposition in Congress. By 2012, the only people who remembered his "heal the Earth" comment were on Mitt Romney's research team.
Today, the president seems more pragmatic and deliberate. In his inauguration address, he devoted more words to climate disruption than to any other single topic. "We will respond to the threat of climate change, knowing that failure to do so would betray our children and future generations," Obama said. "Some may still deny the overwhelming judgment of science, but none can avoid the devastating impact of raging fires, and crippling drought, and more powerful storms."
Those sound like the words of a president who has decided to bend history, a president who is prepared to tackle the biggest issue of his time.
What should he do?
1. Obama should speak out boldly and soon about the goals he wants to be remembered for. Abraham Lincoln did not just ask for an emancipation law - he issued an Emancipation Proclamation. Obama should commit the United States to a 25-year plan that would end our use of fossil fuels. And he should make clear that America's scientists, industrialists, and workers will achieve that energy revolution, regardless of whether China or India or Russia chooses to join the effort.
2. He should build a cabinet of hard-charging leaders who will make climate a priority in their domains. The selection of Seattle's Sally Jewell as secretary of interior and John Kerry as secretary of state are important steps in that direction. Both are more knowledgeable about climate issues, and vastly more committed to addressing them, than their predecessors. The most important choices, however, lie ahead. The departing leaders of the Environmental Protection Agency (Lisa Jackson) and the Department of Energy (Steven Chu) were the strongest senior climate advocates of Obama's first term. Their departures sent chills through the climate community. The selection of top-tier replacements such as Gina McCarthy for EPA and Bill Ritter for Energy would send a clear signal that Obama is serious.
3. The president should use his executive powers to arrest or reverse the most dangerous, climate-related practices. Most of these involve the extraction, transport, and burning of coal and other hydrocarbon fuels. Obama should, for example, shut down existing coal-fired power plants and make new ones impossible to permit; strictly regulate or ban coal exports; ban the importation or sale of liquid fuels from tar sands and coal liquefaction; accelerate the federal drive to electrify our vehicle fleet, and follow the rest of the industrialized world (even China!) in building a nationwide grid of high-speed electric trains. It is not enough to complain that Congress won't act. The president can and must do what has to be done.
4. Obama should deploy the U.S. military in the climate cause. No part of the federal government is more energy intensive, or energy aware than the U.S. Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marines. Rabid interest in ultraefficient, distributed, and renewable energy sources permeates all branches of the armed services. Every military facility should feature "living buildings," coated with solar panels and tied together in smart, hack-proof microgrids. The U.S. military has been the birthplace of many historic firsts, including racial integration and the GI Bill. Today, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency might be the best cutting-edge science organization in the nation. The military is poised, and eager, to lead America into a post-carbon world. The president should help it.
5. "Organizing for Action," Obama's new advocacy group, should unleash a massive grassroots climate brigade. Designed to create an independent power base to support Obama's top priorities, OFA boasts such top-notch political operatives as Jim Messina and David Axelrod. Its executive director is Jon Carson, the former chief of staff at the White House Council on Environmental Quality - and a propitious choice. OFA should be richly funded to organize a coalition that can defeat the antediluvian forces within big oil and coal. That coalition will include high tech, finance, farmers, public health, and dozens of other interest groups. But at its core will be the tens of millions of citizen activists who were inspired by Obama's promise, and are eager to help him realize it.
If Obama brings the full strength of his bully pulpit to bear on the climate issue; marshals the independent power of the cabinet departments and agencies; inspires the nation's technical genius and entrepreneurial talent to rise to the challenge; and mobilizes the 80 percent of Americans who will support him on his quest to overcome the inertia and save the planet, he will join the tiny pantheon of great presidents, the ones who make us proud to be Americans.
Denis Hayes chairs the international Earth Day Network ( www.earthday.org) and is president of the Bullitt Foundation ( http://bullitt.org).