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 winning the space race. But the United States pulled together as a nation with big investments in its future that eventually sparked technological advances, including the Internet.

President Barack Obama is set to announce new measures on Tuesday to battle climate change in what many are hoping will be a big, broad plan that will stand as his legacy 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, which it is. But he also needs to sell Americans on how tough new standards for carbon polluters 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 where industry pretty much does what it wants just look at China, whose environment was recently described as "grim" in a government report.. People cannot breathe in Beijing and in other cities while lakes and rivers are being destroyed by pollution.

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

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

It depends on how the United States responds. Obama, normally no slouch in the speech department, needs to come up big and rally people to the cause. But with the economy only just starting to pick up, there will be loud grumbling that this is not the time to launch bold new experiments that will push up the price of energy.

The president must explain that moving away from a carbon based economy is not just about saving the environment, it is also setting the course for a more sustainable and vibrant future.

He will likely 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, the two biggest carbon polluters could have a knock down, drag out Sputnik-style battle over our polluted atmosphere. And there will be one clear winner: Earth.