We belong to different generations and political parties. We live in different states and under different circumstances. One of us is a college student, born into a political family, while the other is a former congressman from South Carolina and father of five children.
One of us served on the selection committee for the John F. Kennedy Profile in Courage Award. The other will receive this award in recognition of the stand he took when he broke with his party and sacrificed his political career to support responsible action to combat climate change.
We share an unwavering belief that the United States must lead the world on climate change and seize opportunities for unity, growth and progress. We believe that President Kennedy’s courageous leadership in space exploration holds lessons that can help guide us forward.
In 1962, President Kennedy, speaking at Rice University, described the space program that he had first announced when he asked the Congress to support his ambitious goal of landing a man on the moon before the end of the decade.
Opening his speech, Kennedy stated simply the effect of man’s scientific pursuit: “The greater our knowledge increases, the greater our ignorance unfolds.”
This curious paradox holds true today. Our knowledge of the causes and dangers of climate change has increased even as our ignorance of its ramifications has unfolded.
Many of our elected representatives persist in inaction and complacency by arguing that individual nations are powerless to solve the problem because every nation is culpable. Others choose to dispute the science, deny the evidence, and avoid the question of how to solve the problem.
But climate change is only scary if we choose to sit, wait and do nothing about it. President Kennedy encountered the same dilemma: “It is not surprising that some would have us stay where we are a little longer to rest, to wait. But … this country of the United States was not built by those who waited and rested and wished to look behind them.”
We need not be frightened today. Climate change is a chance for all of us to add a chapter to the story of American triumph and human progress. It is a moment for this generation to display the very qualities we attribute to the American political heroes of earlier times, who left the world a better place for us.
Courage of this scale will come from a people who are told that they can do great things by leaders who believe that their people are capable of great things. We believe that America will see opportunity in the danger of climate change just like we saw benefits on Earth from travel in space.
Kennedy told the crowd at Rice that the pursuit of a goal that seemed impossible was valuable precisely because it would be so hard to accomplish. “We choose to go to the moon not because it is easy but because it is hard,” he said. Something so difficult would only be achieved through cooperation and national unity, and it would push us toward greatness.
There will always be reasons for inaction. Many will argue that responsible reforms will hurt our economy as it recovers from the Great Recession. They will exploit the fears of that time to justify extracting rents from industries and fuels whose days are numbered.
Progress on climate change will require courage. Some leaders who stand up to meet the challenge may fall, but they can be sure that their sacrifice will light the world with more energy, more mobility and more freedom and ensure a healthier planet.
We can start by making straightforward changes in the tax code that are acceptable to both the right and the left. By adopting policies that would make it in our trading partners’ interest to join us, meaningful reforms can provide solutions without making government any bigger.
As Americans, we are obligated to leave the world a better place than we found it. We believe, just as President Kennedy did, that only if America leads on the most important issues of our time can we deliver on that promise. We call on our elected leaders to embrace the climate challenge before us and light a path to greatness once again.