Obama Takes Up White Hat on Climate Change

The climate change movement took a powerful leap in 2012, when Bill McKibben identified a single enemy for climate activists to battle: the fossil fuel industry. He painted that industry as what branding experts would call "black hats," referring to old Westerns where the bad guys were so identified, in direct contrast to the white-hat'd good guys, which would be McKibben and his followers.

This black hat/white hat dichotomy works best if you can reduce it to individuals as symbols. McKibben is obviously the white hat for the environment. In 2013, his status was confirmed with a Gandhi Peace Award.

And the black hat'd individual(s)? Charles and David Koch, of course. These two and their company, Koch Industries, are well known bad guys, whose prosecuted crimes include a wrongful death judgment, six felony and numerous misdemeanor convictions, and trading with Iran, and whose crimes against the environment led to record civil and criminal EPA-imposed financial penalties.

From about 1997 on, the Kochs took up the black hat mantle as outspoken funders of the climate denier machine.

The Kochs, once firmly libertarian, decided they couldn't affect policy in a minority party and so moved to control Republican office-holders, who routinely cite the Kochs' economy and jobs-vs-climate mantra. The Koch brothers intend to spend $900 million influencing the 2016 elections.

The Kochs are bad actors, no doubt. But they're so rich and so powerful, how can McKibben ever be effective? It would almost take the leader of the free world to do battle with these determined climate killers.

And here he comes, white hat in hand and Kochs in his sights. Why does President Obama finally feel it's OK to pile on? After all, he depends on the Kochs for support on issues such as rewriting Federal sentencing laws. So on the environment, he was, as it turns out, relatively gentle with the Kochs -- or at least critical only in generalities -- back in August when he now famously called their efforts to push back renewable energy standards "...not the American way."

In this issue's Rolling Stone, Obama wallops the Koch's on specifics. Responding to a question from author Jeff Goodell about why he called the Koch's anti-American, Obama says:

"... (the Koch brothers) are actually trying to influence state utilities to make it more expensive for homeowners to install solar panels. ...And by the way, they're also happy to take continued massive subsidies that Congress has refused to eliminate, despite me calling for the elimination of those subsidies every single year."

It's stunning to see a President whose environmental leanings have been shy of 100 percent commitment take a stance that's not only pro-climate action, but points fingers at rich and politically powerful individuals.

Obama's stance is here to stay. As the article makes clear, Obama's pro-climate position has become hardened by two very personal factors.

First, his sadness over the natural world's destruction. Raised in Hawaii and Indonesia, he enjoyed playing in magnificent coral reefs, as he describes them, "that were lush and full of fish" then, "that now, if you go back, are not." These marvels along with the disappearing Alaskan glaciers he witnessed this month are photogenic examples that are hard to forget.

Second, as his daughters grow up, Obama has started to imagine grandchildren and the world they will live in. As he told Goodell,

"I think about Malia and Sasha a lot. I think about their children a lot. ...When we were out on the water yesterday, going around those fjords, and the sea otter was swimming on its back and feeding off its belly, and a porpoise jumps out of the water, and a whale sprays -- I thought to myself, I want to make sure my grandchildren see this."

Even though this cerebral President has talked about climate action since his first election campaign in 2007, he, like all of us, responds most fervently when it hits him personally.

Obama ends the interview with a rousing statement that confirms he's climate change's white-hat-in-chief:

"What I don't want is for people to get paralyzed thinking that somehow this is out of our control. And I'm a big believer that the human imagination can solve problems. We don't usually solve them as fast as we need to. It's sort of like two cheers for democracy. We try everything else, I think Churchill said, and when we've exhausted every other alternative, we finally do the right thing."