Obama Brings God Into the Climate-Change Fight

The Citizen's Guide to the Future
Jan. 21 2013 2:14 PM

Obama Brings God Into the Climate-Change Fight

Barack Obama takes the oath of office as first lady Michelle Obama holds the Bible.
Barack Obama takes the oath of office as first lady Michelle Obama holds the Bible.

Photo by Doug Mills-Pool/Getty Images

Climate change and environmental policy have always been on President Obama's agenda. But rarely have they been so central as they were in his inaugural address on Monday, when the environment was the first issue Obama brought up after his full-throated defense of economic fairness

As usual, and in keeping with the high-minded tone of his speech, there were few policy specifics. (The Washington Post's Brad Plumer has a good rundown of what might be feasible in the president's second term.) What was interesting was how he framed the issue: not just as one of responsibility to future generations, but as one of responsibility to God. Here's what he said:

We, the people, still believe that our obligations as Americans are not just to ourselves, but to all posterity. We will respond to the threat of climate change, knowing that the failure to do so would betray our children and future generations. 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. The path towards sustainable energy sources will be long and sometimes difficult. But America cannot resist this transition; we must lead it. We cannot cede to other nations the technology that will power new jobs and new industries — we must claim its promise. That is how we will maintain our economic vitality and our national treasure — our forests and waterways; our croplands and snowcapped peaks. That is how we will preserve our planet, commanded to our care by God. That's what will lend meaning to the creed our fathers once declared.
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If Obama were just paying lip service to climate change to please his backers on the left—as he has sometimes been accused of doing—the reference to "science" would have been quite sufficient. By bringing in God, he's attempting to reframe the issue as one that transcends not only partisanship but the divide between those who believe in science and those who doubt science but believe in God. Left or right, atheist or creationist—either way, Obama is saying, we've got to do something.

Future Tense is a partnership of SlateNew America, and Arizona State University.

Will Oremus is Slate's senior technology writer.

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