The President’s Inaugural Address

On January 20th 2009, a new president may be inaugurated. I say only may because it is hard for me to see McCain as new, as any sort of change from what’s been inflicted on us these past eight years – “meet the new boss…” and all that. But if the United States does elect a new president, Barack Obama – as I desperately hope it will – what will he say in his inauguration? He could do much worse that this, by the fictional President Phil Chase:

Fellow Americans,

You have entrusted me with the job of president during a difficult time. The crisis we face now, of abrupt climate change and crippling damage to the biosphere, is a very dangerous one, to be sure. But we are not at war with anyone, and in fact we face a challenge that all humanity has to meet together. On this podium, Franklin Roosevelt said, ‘ This generation has a rendezvous with destiny.’ Now it’s true again. We are the generation that has to deal with the profound destruction that will be caused by the global warming that has already been set in motion. The potential disruption of the natural order is so great that scientists warn of a mass extinction event. Losses on that scale would endanger all humanity, and so we cannot fail to address the threat. The lives of our children, and all their descendants, depend on us doing so.

So, like FDR and his generation, we have to face the great challenge of our time. We have to use our government to organize a total social response to the problem. That took courage then, and we will need courage now. In the years since we used our government to help us get out of the Great Depression, it has sometimes been fashionable to belittle the American government as some kind of foreign burden laid on us. That attitude is nothing more than an attack on American history, deliberately designed to shift power away from the American people. I want us to remember how Abraham Lincoln said it: ‘that government of the people, by the people, and for the people shall not perish from this Earth.’ This is the crucial concept of American democracy – that government expresses what the majority of us would like to do as a society. It’s us. We do it to us and for us. I believe this reminder is so important that I intend to add the defining phrase ‘of the people, by the people, and for the people’ every time I use the word ‘government,’ and I intend to do all I can to make the phrase be a true description. It will make me even more long-winded than I was before, but I am willing to pay that price, and you are going to have to pay it with me.

So, this winter, with your approval and support, I intend to instruct my team in the executive branch of government of the people, by the people, and for the people, to initiate a series of federal actions and changes designed to meet the problem of global climate change head-on. We will deal with it as a society working together, and working with the rest of he world. It’s a global project, and so I will go to the United Nations and tell them that the United States is ready to join the international effort. We will also help the underdeveloped world to develop clean technology, so that the good aspects of development will not be drowned in its bad side effects – often literally drowned. In our own country, meanwhile, we will do all it takes to shift to clean technologies as quickly as possible.

My, it’s cold out here today! You can feel right now, right down to the bone, that what I am saying is true. We’re out in the cold, and we need to change the way we do things. And it’s not just a technological problem, having to do with our machinery alone. The devastation of the biosphere is also a result of there being too many human beings for the planet to support over the long haul. If the human population continues to increase as it has risen in the past, all progress we might make will be overwhelmed.

But what is very striking to observes is that everywhere on this Earth where good standards of justice prevail, the rate of reproduction is about at the replacement rate. While wherever justice, and the full array of rights as described in the UN Declaration of Human Rights, is somehow denied to some proportion of the population, especially to women and children, the rate of reproduction either balloons to unsustainably rapid growth rates, or crashes outright. Now you can argue all you want about why this correlation exists, but the correlation itself is striking and undeniable. So this is one of those situations in which what we do for good in one area, helps us again in another. It is a positive feedback loop with the most profound implications. Consider: for the sake of climate stabilization, there must be population stabilization; and for the sake of population stabilization, justice must prevail. Every person on the planet must live with the full array of human rights that all nations have already ascribed to when signing the UN Charter. When we achieve that, at that point, and at that point only, we will begin to reproduce at a sustainable rate.

To help that happen, I intend to make sure that the United States joins the global justice project fully, unequivocally, and without any double standards. This means accepting the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court, and the jurisdiction of the World Court in the Hague. It means abiding by all the clauses of the UN Charter and the Geneva Conventions, which after all we have already signed. It means supporting UN peacekeeping forces, and supporting the general concept of the UN as the body through which international conflicts get resolved. It means supporting the World Health Organization in all its reproductive rights and population reduction efforts. It means supporting women’s education and women’s rights everywhere, even in cultures where men’s tyrannies are claimed to be some sort of tradition. All these commitments on our part will be crucial if we are serious about building a sustainable world. There are three legs to this effort, folks: technology, environment, and social justice. None of the three can be neglected.

So, some of what we do may look a little unconventional at first. Ant it may look more than a little threatening to those few who have been trying, in effect, to buy our government of the people, by the people, and for the people, and use it to line their own pockets while the world goes smash. But you know what? Those people need to change too. They’re out in the cold the same as the rest of us. So we will proceed, and hope those opposed come to see the good in it.

Ultimately we will be exploring all peaceful means to initiate positive changes in our systems, in order to hand on to the generations to come a world that is as beautiful and bountiful as the one we were born into. We are only the temporary stewards of a mighty trust, which includes the lives of all the future generations to come. We are responsible to our children and theirs. What we do now will reveal much about our character and our values as a people. We have to rise to the occasion, and I think we can and will. I am going to throw myself into the effort wholeheartedly and with a feeling of high excitement, as if beginning a long journey over stormy seas.

from Kim Stanley Robinson, Sixty Days and Counting (New York: Bantam Books, 2007) pp. 62-65.

For information on UN-US relations, you might begin by looking at the fact sheets put out by From a slightly different perspective, the conservative Brookings Institute regularly addresses US-UN relations, especially on the topic of UN reform (eg, here).

One of the most important international efforts at present is that behind the United Nations Millennium Development Goals, and I hope to look at the Goals and efforts to achieve them in subsequent posts. In the meantime… check it out.


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