Experience? Doing What?

April 6, 2008

Hillary Clinton and John McCain are both advertising the question, “Who has the experience to answer the red phone at 3:00 AM?” They say the experience needed is that of a tough commander.

But is this the right kind of experience, really, that we need, and is this truly the greatest danger that America faces?

According to the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report of 2007, if nothing is done to protect our coast lines and if, as predicted, the sea rises by a least half a meter under the best of conditions, more than 100 million people in the world will be flooded. The worst of this flooding will be in Egypt, India, Bangladesh, China, Vietnam and New Orleans. In North America alone, the estimate of those in coastal plain zones who would be affected by a sea level rise of only one foot (0.34 meter) is 23 million.

The UN report indicates that to avoid even greater consequences, peak CO2 levels will have to be stabilized by 2015. As a practical matter, steps will have to be authorized in the next four years. We are therefore electing a president this time, now, upon whose policies the lives and fortunes of millions are likely to depend.

These are dangers predicted with high scientific probability. If nothing is done we face damage to our estuaries, deltas and coastal plains, our water supplies, and increasingly from severe hurricanes, floods and tornadoes all of which will affect the homes and businesses of millions. These damages are less speculative, more reliably predictable, than even the shadowy possibility of some terrorist attack. In spite of all the hype, therefore, America’s greatest danger is not Islamo-fascism; it is continued reliance upon carbon fuels and continued presidential and congressional inaction.

No one knows for sure when the sea will actually creep into our cities. In the last two years ice caps have been melting faster than anyone—even the scientists—predicted. Obviously, we have the best chance to stop the tide if we go tow work immediately. If we wait until the water reaches the streets of New York and Los Angeles—until it is visible—it will be too late. The heat will already be trapped in the atmosphere and there will be no way to get it out.

We are therefore selecting a president this time, now—not fifty years from now—who will either take us around the corner to a new consciousness of our massive challenge or one who will lead us into temptation, encouraging us to defend oil supplies in Iraq and elsewhere until the next generation.

In this crisis, for candidates to advertise as if the answer to our problems might be a commander in chief who can order tanks and guns is to promote a tragic delusion. America’s greatest danger is not one that can be addressed by rolling over in bed and answering the red phone.

We need, far more desperately, a leader to prepare us to make the changes that will be required without turning us against ourselves, neighbor against neighbor, retreating to racism, or the privileges of class. We will undoubtedly face sacrifices, changes in energy use and life style. The temptation to get out the guns, to explain our pain by blaming everyone from corporations to immigrants to Chinese will be overwhelming.

A former military officer and a former First Lady may be equipped to handle these challenges and they may not be. But the red phone and the experience of tanks and warships, will have nothing to do with our need to discover a whole new paradigm of existence. We will not need a commander so much as we will need a leader with patience and judgment, with enormous persuasive powers, with tolerance and the ability to see all sides of a case. We will need a leader with unparalleled intellectual power and grace. We will need a leader who can come into the office without acrimony and bitterness so that he or she can still bring us together.

If our new president has not the courage to call out the nation to sacrifice and pull together he or she will not be ready for this job, this time. This job, this time, is bigger and more demanding than any conversation on any red phone could ever encompass, bigger and more demanding than any American president has ever faced. This job, this time, will require someone who can hold a long, persistent, intelligent, and compassionate conversation. This time, for this job, someone who is looking for terrorists in the air may just miss the water rising at his or her feet.