President Barack Obama may have made history last November, but he seems deaf to history's loudest call right now. The president clearly believes that health care reform, above all else, will define his early presidency. But even if Mr. Obama scores total success on health care, few future Americans will care or remember as long as the Earth's ailing atmosphere goes untreated.
Climate change, it turns out, is the ultimate public health issue. And yet the House of Representatives passed a mere band-aid of a bill last month on global warming. Why so weak? Because Mr. Obama, with his 63 percent approval rating, was surprisingly AWOL for most the climate debate, essentially telling House leaders to hurry up and pass something - anything - so we can get on to the real issue of health care.
But cheap prescription drugs won't do much good if our cities have filthy drinking water in coming years due to global warming. A "public option" on heath insurance? I'm all for it - but it will mean little if killer heat waves and mega-droughts parch the nation while Florida becomes a chain of malarial islands
If this sounds melodramatic, keep in mind that a joint report from 13 federal agencies - released by the White House last month - stated that, due to global warming, hurricanes are already getting bigger and droughts are lasting longer in America. And sea levels will continue to rise, up to four feet this century, according to the massive scientific report.
If there's one thing health experts agree on, it's this: Clean water is a core determinant of good health. Just visit Calcutta or much of Africa to see what a bacteria-laced gulp does to a 5-year-old child. It's alarming, then, to know that New York City alone has 14 wastewater treatment plants located exactly at sea level now. And Philadelphia's main source of drinking water is already dangerously vulnerable to saltwater intrusion from rising seas.
Where will the clean water come from along much of the East Coast after just one or two more feet of ocean rise? Will we ring ourselves and our sanitation infrastructure in levees, living at the mercy of earthen walls? That didn't work out well for the health of New Orleans.
No one's arguing that health care reform should take a back seat to climate action. It's just that if we do one without the other - if we make short-term health care affordable but long-term health systems impossible - we've failed.
The truth is, we can do both. Drastically cutting our use of fossil fuels, especially coal, will simultaneously reduce a whole host of conventional pollution dangers, ranging from asthma to elevated mercury in our fish. These avoided health costs, combined with the growing affordability of fuel-efficient cars and powerful wind farms in the Midwest, mean even strong action on global warming will cost just a few cents per day for average Americans.
This is why Mr. Obama must take charge right now and totally redirect the climate debate in the Senate. The Waxman-Markey bill, narrowly approved by the House, is barely better than nothing at all. It sets weak reduction targets for greenhouse gases and gives free pollution permits to many of America's dirtiest corporations. It strips the Environmental Protection Agency of the power to regulate carbon from coal plants and creates a mind-numbing trading system of carbon derivatives.
The Senate must now make a U-turn, heading back to the president's own original climate framework unveiled last February. All polluters must pay for greenhouse gas emissions, the president said then. No exceptions. And 80 percent of the money should be rebated directly to middle- and lower-income Americans. That leaves a healthy $15 billion per year for investments in clean energy and green jobs. The Obama approach was simple, fair and - with populist appeal - built to last.
But the president didn't fight for the plan, yielding to House Democrats who caved in to the pollution lobby. How do we get back on track? First, look at health care reform again. It, not climate policy, dominates the front pages for one simple reason: It's what Mr. Obama talks about loudest. He's involved. With a similarly strong voice on global warming in the Senate, Mr. Obama can redirect national attention toward a more complete, long-term picture of health.
James Hansen, America's top climate scientist, says we have less than 10 years to reverse the rise in greenhouse gases worldwide. Less than 10 years to save the planet's health and our own. Mr. Obama must now be our Lincoln - our Churchill. The ineffectual U.S. House bill passed last month shows Congress simply cannot do it without a push from the president.
As U.S. climate policy is ironed out in coming months, American voters should beseech the White House at every legislative step: Where was Mr. Obama on key committee votes? The floor debate? How much did he do? How hard did he work?
We must ask these questions now, holding our president accountable, knowing that future Americans - their health at stake - will ask the same questions for centuries to come.
Mike Tidwell is executive director of the Chesapeake Climate Action Network in Takoma Park and author of "Bayou Farewell: The Rich Life and Tragic Death of Louisiana's Cajun Coast." His e-mail is email@example.com.