Yale University

Class News

Hope for a Heated Planet

Bob Musil '64
The Reporter
February, 2009

Barack Obama has offered hope at home and abroad even before taking office. His plan to create millions of green jobs while bolstering a failing economy is especially impressive. First he was channeling Lincoln, then FDR, now contemporary, visionary leaders like AI Gore and Van Jones. But for advocates like those of us at Population Connection, it is critical to remember that crowds shouted themselves hoarse with Obama's mantra "Yes, We Can!" not "Yes, He Can!" As our new President has reminded us many, many times, change happens from the bottom up. President Obama may deliver on a climate treaty, renewable energy sources and green jobs, even family planning. But not without serious work on our part. It is our turn, our time.

Unless we build an even stronger movement that literally connects issues like population, climate, energy, and security and then demands action, we are bound to see our hopes fade, our celebrations turn to lamentations. That is the main lesson I learned in my years at Physicians for Social Responsibility. I witnessed the dashed hopes of the Clinton years and the dark days of the Bush Administration. As I recount in Hope for a Heated Planet, Green group leaders like me, John Seager, Peter Kostmayer, and others had access to the White House and Congress and sympathetic leaders like Clinton and Gore. But we were beaten by Big Oil and conservatives in Congress because we had not done enough to mobilize community leaders and strong advocates where it counted ― across the nation.

Now we have another chance. Renewed hope. We are building a bigger, better movement. We are connecting issues and we are taken more seriously. Thanks to us, climate change and energy policy have at last made it onto the agenda. And there are growing signs that concern over global warming is heating up attention to population too. You and I and Population Connection can and must focus that attention on the new 111th Congress and the Obama White House.

Global emissions of carbon dioxide, the main greenhouse gas causing climate change, continue to rise steadily. Given the available data, two-thirds of the rise from 1990 to 2003, for example, can be attributed to growth in population alone. Anqing Shi of the World Bank has calculated that population growth, using mid-range estimates, will account for 48.3% of the projected increases in carbon emissions from 1990 to 2025. That's an extra 3.73 billion tons of carbon. As one wag put it, perhaps our chant should be "condoms capture carbon!"

I've looked carefully at solutions to our combined climate, energy, security and population dilemma. From renewable energy to increased family planning funds ― they are all available right now. There is hope. But it is up to you and me to create it, to fight for it. No president, no Congress can do it for us ― or without us.

Bob Musil is a Board member of Population Connection and the former CEO of Physicians for Social Responsibility. He teaches in the Global Environmental Politics Program at American University.