Are we witnessing a strange kind of symmetry?In his first presidential election Barack Obama constantly talked about taking measures to combating global warming all the time – as, indeed, did his Republican opponent, John McCain.
But, once in office, he did little or nothing about it.
In his second campaign he hardly mentioned climate change at all. Does that, equally paradoxically, mean that he will now take action.
If what he has said since being re-elected is anything to go by, he will. It began with his acceptance speech on election night when he broke his long silence with a single sentence on the subject, to enthusiastic applause.
He then made it a centrepiece of his inauguration address last month. And this week he devoted a sizeable chunk of his State of the Union address to promising he will “act soon to protect future generations”.
As mentioned here before, the US President privately regards the lack of effective action on climate change to be his biggest first-term failure and, prodded by his daughters, has thought “long and hard about the issue” since winning his new one.
“He understands that this is the central problem his administration has to deal with in the second term” John Podesta,- a former Clinton White House Chief of Staff, who led Obama’s transition team four years ago – told Rolling Stone magazine. “He knows the judgment of history is riding on this.”
But he has a substantial problem – the Republican controlled House of Representatives, which is less inclined to cooperate over climate change than on any other issue, partly because an uncompromising rejection of global warming helps attract funding from oil-rich tycoons.
So it was particularly interesting that he radically switched strategy in this week’s address. Whereas in the first year he waited for Congress to take the initiative he is now warning that he will act if it fails to do so.
He gave notice that in his address that he would effectively bypass Capitol Hill, directing his cabinet “to come up with executive actions we can take, now and in the future, to reduce pollution, prepare our communities for the consequences of climate change, and speed the transition to more sustainable sources of energy”.
One such could be to bear down on the 2.4 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions from existing coal burning power plants. A recent proposal from the National Resources defence Council says that these could be cut by 26 per cent by 2020, with benefits that exceeded the cost of the reduction fifteen fold.
Similar measures could reduce leaks of methane – which is 72 times more potent in causing global warming in the relatively short term than carbon dioxide – from oil and gas wells and phasing out the even more powerful hydrofluorocarbons, used in refrigeration and aerosol propellants among other applications.
But again there is a snag. All these measures would have to be taken by the Environmental Protection Agency, and it would need a tough leader to overcome guerrilla resistance from Republicans. Obama had one of those, Lisa Jackson, who ran it in his first term. But she has now stood down and the President will find it hard to get anyone like her through the Congressional confirmation process.
He has, however, already had a committed advocate of action on climate change confirmed, in the person of his new Secretary of State, John Kerry – and this could transform prospects for international agreement on combating climate change.
It would not necessarily take a completion of an international treaty, a tortuous process, to make a big difference; much could be achieved through a bilateral agreement between the USA and China, which together account for some 42 per cent of world carbon dioxide emissions.
Of course none of this may happen. But for the time being at least – and unexpectedly – Barack Obama has put climate change back on the national and international agendas.
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