Not too many years from now, a new generation will look back at us in this hour of choosing and ask one of two questions. Either they will ask, "What were you thinking? Didn't you see the entire North Polar ice cap melting before your eyes? Did you not care?"
Or they will ask instead, "How did you find the moral courage to rise up and solve a crisis so many said was impossible to solve?"
We must choose which of these questions we want to answer, and we must give our answer now—not in words but in actions.
The answer to the first question—what were you thinking?—is almost too painful to write:
"We argued among ourselves. We didn't want to believe that it really was happening. We waited too long.
"We had so many other problems crying out for attention. I know this is of little comfort, but we did try. I'm sorry."
The second question—how did you solve it?—is the one I much prefer that we answer, and here is the answer I hope we can give:
"The turning point came in 2009. The year began well, with the inauguration of a new president, who immediately shifted priorities to focus on building the foundation for a new low--carbon economy. The resistance to these changes—especially by corporations that were making a lot of money from coal, oil, and gas—was ferocious.
"But the truth about the global emergency gained ground. The evidence presented by the scientists accumulated, slowly at first, but then a few of the opponents of change changed themselves.
"Whatever happened, it made a powerful difference when these former opponents became passionate advocates for a new direction. The momentum shifted. One by one, others joined in a powerful consensus that we had to act, boldly and quickly. At the end of 2009, the United States passed legislation that changed the way business and civic leaders made plans for the future.
"By putting a price on the pollution that had been previously ignored, the United States established powerful incentives to begin the historic shift. The new incentives to shift our energy production from fossil fuels to solar, wind, and geothermal sources unleashed a wave of improvements in renewable technologies.
"All over the world, as awareness of the climate crisis grew, people concerned about you found ways to put pressure on their leaders. Hundreds of thousands, then millions of grassroots networks emerged.
"Although leadership came from many countries, once the United States finally awakened to its responsibilities, it reestablished the moral authority the world had come to expect from the U.S.
"The most important change that made this transformation possible is something that is hard to describe in words. Our way of thinking changed. The earth itself began to occupy our thoughts. Somehow, it became no longer acceptable to participate in activities that harmed the integrity of the global environment.
"I know that we waited too long. I wish we had acted sooner. But the outlook for your future is now bright. The wounds we inflicted on the atmosphere and the earth's ecological system are healing.
"It seems ironic now that our commitment during the Great Transformation to a low-carbon economy was what restored economic prosperity. Once the world embarked on the journey to heal our world and save your future, tens of millions of new jobs—including whole new professions—began to emerge.
"I ask only one thing of you in return for what we have done on your behalf: pass on to your children the courage and resolve to act boldly and wisely whenever the future is at risk. You will be challenged, as we were. But I know that you will not fail those who come after you, as we did not fail you.
"The choice is awesome and potentially eternal. It is in the hands of the present generation: a decision we cannot escape, and a choice to be mourned or celebrated through all the generations that follow."