The inauguration speech: Obama’s “come and have a go” moment

Since December's school shooting in Connecticut, the President's voice has a new edge to it - a hardness, a determination, an aggression and a volume.

You can read the full text of Obama's inauguration speech and watch the video here

In the freezing cold, in front of 800,000 people lined along the Mall which stretches from the Capitol Building to the Washington Monument, President Barack Obama gave his inaugural address. He seemed very small and very human, dwarfed against the Capitol Building and the crowd – smaller than 2009's several million people, but still sizeable – but his voice, amplified a thousand-fold, boomed with what sounded like renewed vigour: this was a new President.

Sitting near the front, I could turn around and hear and almost see the President's voice as it travelled outwards in a wave, its echoes coming decreasingly back to me as the voice spread further from speaker bank to speaker bank. When he paused, the silence spread out the same way; the President watching it spread, enjoying the entropy.

The view down the Mall from the Capitol Building as Obama was sworn in for the second time. Photograph: Getty Images

His voice had an edge to it, that new edge that it's had only since December's school shooting: a hardness, a determination, an aggression and a volume; though it was also as rhetorically polished as we've come to expect, steeped in historical cliché and rising patterns of pairs – “blood drawn by lash and blood drawn by sword,” “youth and drive; diversity and openness,” and so on.

Though echoes of terrible gunfire could be discerned behind Obama's new-found anger, echoes that ring from Connecticut, guns and gun control were themselves notably absent from the speech. Only an oblique reference to the shooting – “our journey is not complete until all our children, from the streets of Detroit to the hills of Appalachia to the quiet lanes of Newtown, know that they are cared for, and cherished, and always safe from harm” – hinted that anything was different at all, though the President has outlined his legislative agenda on guns already a few days ago.

Other divisive issues were notably present, though: by no means was this an inaugural address of platitudes. Obama seems to be looking to pick fights even this early in his second term. First came a long passage about climate change. “We will respond to the threat of climate change, knowing that the failure to do so would betray our children and future generations,” said the President. “Some may still deny the overwhelming judgement of science, but none can avoid the devastating impact of raging fires, and crippling drought, and more powerful storms,” has already set the deniers yapping. Step forward James Delingpole, of course, who in this particularly strange piece of writing entitled “Obama declares war on reality” appears to compare himself to Galileo.

This was not the only “come and have a go” to conservative talking heads, however. In fact, this was a pretty bullish speech all around. Here is Obama jabbing at his Republican opponents, both in Congress and in last year's presidential race: “We cannot mistake absolutism for principle, or substitute spectacle for politics, or treat name-calling as reasoned debate.” Ouch.

More important was Obama's vow to take action on gay marriage; the first time the issue has ever been mentioned in an inaugural address. “...Our journey is not complete until our gay brothers and sisters are treated like anyone else under the law – for if we are truly created equal, then surely the love we commit to one another must be equal as well.” Probably the most important line in the speech, this is a solid mandate and signal that executive action on the issue may well be to follow.

After the speech was over, Beyoncé sang the Stars and Stripes with extraordinary gusto, and it clearly mellowed Obama's mood into nostalgia. As he turned to leave the stage, the President turned and gazed back out at the crowd. “I want to look out one more time,” he said to the secret service detail trying to hurry him along. “I'm not going to see this again.”

President Obama steps out onto the platform in front of the Capitol Building for his second inauguration. Photograph: Getty Images

Nicky Woolf is a writer for the Guardian based in the US. He tweets @NickyWoolf.

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Air pollution: 5 steps to vanquishing an invisible killer

A new report looks at the economics of air pollution. 

110, 150, 520... These chilling statistics are the number of deaths attributable to particulate air pollution for the cities of Southampton, Nottingham and Birmingham in 2010 respectively. Or how about 40,000 - that is the total number of UK deaths per year that are attributable the combined effects of particulate matter (PM2.5) and Nitrogen Oxides (NOx).

This situation sucks, to say the very least. But while there are no dramatic images to stir up action, these deaths are preventable and we know their cause. Road traffic is the worst culprit. Traffic is responsible for 80 per cent of NOx on high pollution roads, with diesel engines contributing the bulk of the problem.

Now a new report by ResPublica has compiled a list of ways that city councils around the UK can help. The report argues that: “The onus is on cities to create plans that can meet the health and economic challenge within a short time-frame, and identify what they need from national government to do so.”

This is a diplomatic way of saying that current government action on the subject does not go far enough – and that cities must help prod them into gear. That includes poking holes in the government’s proposed plans for new “Clean Air Zones”.

Here are just five of the ways the report suggests letting the light in and the pollution out:

1. Clean up the draft Clean Air Zones framework

Last October, the government set out its draft plans for new Clean Air Zones in the UK’s five most polluted cities, Birmingham, Derby, Leeds, Nottingham and Southampton (excluding London - where other plans are afoot). These zones will charge “polluting” vehicles to enter and can be implemented with varying levels of intensity, with three options that include cars and one that does not.

But the report argues that there is still too much potential for polluters to play dirty with the rules. Car-charging zones must be mandatory for all cities that breach the current EU standards, the report argues (not just the suggested five). Otherwise national operators who own fleets of vehicles could simply relocate outdated buses or taxis to places where they don’t have to pay.  

Different vehicles should fall under the same rules, the report added. Otherwise, taking your car rather than the bus could suddenly seem like the cost-saving option.

2. Vouchers to vouch-safe the project’s success

The government is exploring a scrappage scheme for diesel cars, to help get the worst and oldest polluting vehicles off the road. But as the report points out, blanket scrappage could simply put a whole load of new fossil-fuel cars on the road.

Instead, ResPublica suggests using the revenue from the Clean Air Zone charges, plus hiked vehicle registration fees, to create “Pollution Reduction Vouchers”.

Low-income households with older cars, that would be liable to charging, could then use the vouchers to help secure alternative transport, buy a new and compliant car, or retrofit their existing vehicle with new technology.

3. Extend Vehicle Excise Duty

Vehicle Excise Duty is currently only tiered by how much CO2 pollution a car creates for the first year. After that it becomes a flat rate for all cars under £40,000. The report suggests changing this so that the most polluting vehicles for CO2, NOx and PM2.5 continue to pay higher rates throughout their life span.

For ClientEarth CEO James Thornton, changes to vehicle excise duty are key to moving people onto cleaner modes of transport: “We need a network of clean air zones to keep the most polluting diesel vehicles from the most polluted parts of our towns and cities and incentives such as a targeted scrappage scheme and changes to vehicle excise duty to move people onto cleaner modes of transport.”

4. Repurposed car parks

You would think city bosses would want less cars in the centre of town. But while less cars is good news for oxygen-breathers, it is bad news for city budgets reliant on parking charges. But using car parks to tap into new revenue from property development and joint ventures could help cities reverse this thinking.

5. Prioritise public awareness

Charge zones can be understandably unpopular. In 2008, a referendum in Manchester defeated the idea of congestion charging. So a big effort is needed to raise public awareness of the health crisis our roads have caused. Metro mayors should outline pollution plans in their manifestos, the report suggests. And cities can take advantage of their existing assets. For example in London there are plans to use electronics in the Underground to update travellers on the air pollution levels.

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Change is already in the air. Southampton has used money from the Local Sustainable Travel Fund to run a successful messaging campaign. And in 2011 Nottingham City Council became the first city to implement a Workplace Parking levy – a scheme which has raised £35.3m to help extend its tram system, upgrade the station and purchase electric buses.

But many more “air necessities” are needed before we can forget about pollution’s worry and its strife.  

 

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.