Obama, climate change and the second term

It’s hard to know how much effect New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s comments about climate change after post-Hurricane Sandy had

It’s hard to know how much effect New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s comments about climate change after post-Hurricane Sandy had on the US election. It’s easy to overestimate that sort of thing, but President Barack Obama’s victory in several states was so razor-thin that Bloomberg’s last-minute intervention may have been decisive. What’s crystal clear is that Obama himself didn’t want to talk about it during the campaign.

Bloomberg, responding to the devastation he saw in New York City, laid it on the line. “Our climate is changing. And while the increase in extreme weather we have experienced in New York City and around the world may or may not have been the result of it, the risk that it may be…should be enough to compel all elected leaders to take immediate action.”

He said this only five days before the election, in the immediate aftermath of a national calamity that may well have been climate-related. So did Obama pick up the ball and run with it? Certainly not. Apart from a one-liner about how climate change “threatens the future of our children” in a single speech, he remained stubbornly silent.

Rightly or wrongly, Obama and his team have been convinced for the past four years that talking about climate change is political suicide.  Nor did he actually do all that much: a higher fuel-efficiency standard for vehicles was his only major initiative.

And Mitt Romney, of course, said not a word about climate change: you cannot take this problem seriously and retain any credibility in today’s Republican Party. So was all the instant speculation about how Hurricane Sandy might finally awaken Americans to the dangers of climate change just wishful thinking? Not necessarily.

Obama rarely start fights he cannot win, and it was clear from the day he took office in 2009 that he couldn’t get any climate-related legislation through Congress. To what extent has his re-election changed this equation?

Second-term US presidents, who no longer have to worry about re-election, often act more boldly than in their first term. The US economy is clearly in recovery mode, which will give him more leeway to act on other issues. And the environmental disasters of the past year may finally be pushing American public opinion toward a recognition that the threat of climate change is real.

It has long been argued what is needed to penetrate the American public’s resistance to the bad news of climate change is a major climate-related disaster that hurts people in the United States. Even if Sandy may not have been a direct consequence of global warming, it fills that bill. It may get the donkey’s attention at last.

There is no guarantee of that, and each year the risk grows that the average global temperature will eventually rise by more than two degrees C (3.6 degrees F) and topple into uncontrollable, runaway warming. Moreover, the Republicans still control the lower house of Congress. But hope springs eternal, and at last there is some.

The past few weeks have seen an unexpected and promising conjunction of events: a weather event that may shake the American public’s denial of climate change, and the re-election of a president who gets it, and who is now politically free to act on his convictions. As Businessweek (a magazine owned by Michael Bloomberg) put it on last week’s cover: “It’s global warming, stupid.”

Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries. Please let us know if you would like to see this column published regularly in the Rimbey Review. Email editor@rimbeyreview.com

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