Sustainability Gets a Seat at the Table: Why Including Climate Change in the Inaugural Address is a Momentous Event



Inauguration speeches are a bit of a conundrum, really.  All at once they are meant to set a vision and inspire a nation, yet avoid partisanship, or anything that might be too controversial from the current political agenda.  The sameness of inaugural addresses even inspired a mashup of inaugural addresses from the last 50 years that was broadcast widely online in the days leading up to President Obama’s inauguration last week.

Whether Republican or Democrat the inaugural address follows a comforting formula noting the new beginning, but acknowledging the foundation of tradition; praising the quintessential American values of freedom, small government, and self-reliance, acknowledging the certainty of American leadership, and cementing the major accomplishments of the time.   Pointing these similarities out is in no way intended to diminish the meaningfulness of the speech; after all, tradition is the foundation of national identity.

Every once in a while, however, a speech stands out – Kennedy’s address in 1961 has become part of our quotable lexicon and Reagan’s 1981 speech is used by Republicans and Democrats  alike in their pursuit of office.  While I don’t think that President Obama’s 2013 inaugural address will be folded into our vernacular in quite the same way, for CSR practitioners, like me, we’ll remember the speech for its clear statement on the importance of addressing climate change.

Perhaps his strongest statement was this one:

“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 American 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’s how we will maintain our economic vitality and our national treasure, our forests and waterways, our crop lands and snow capped 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.”

From the Energy Collective to the Huffington Post and Jeffery Hollander’s blog, the community was buzzing with what the statements will mean for the energy policy, particularly in light of the upcoming Keystone Pipeline decision, and for US businesses.  But despite all this enthusiasm there are some obvious pitfalls along the way.

I think Amy Davidsen, US Executive Director of The Climate Group summed up one of the common concerns about the ability of the administration to complete this task.  In her comments on the speech Ms. Davidsen noted that while “[c]limate change has been put back onto theUS public agenda…we must now keep it there.”

But what’s the secret to keeping the administration and the Congress focused on moving the climate control agenda forward when there are so many important issues on the agenda?  Perhaps it’s time for both individuals and corporations to take a phrase from that most quotable of speeches, Kennedy’s 1961 Inaugural address, and ask not what the government can do to bring about progress in climate change legislation, but ask ourselves what our employers and we and individuals can do to take practical action on the ground, so to speak.

After all, as we’ve demonstrated often at BT what’s good for the environment is usually good for long term business success.

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