By Michael Yudell
“We will respond to the threat of climate change knowing that the failure to do so would betray our children and future generations,” an emboldened President Obama declared in his inaugural address Monday. Following the disconcerting absence of climate change from campaign 2012 and limited climate policy action during his first term, the president has finally told us that not only will he act, but that we (and he) have an obligation to do so. What could be more important, after all, than acting on behalf of our children and future generations?
But the New York Times is already reporting that, even in the wake of the president’s eloquence on the imperative to act now, his path forward will be a restricted one. Instead of focusing on comprehensive legislative change, Obama will use the power of his office to administratively “reduce emissions from power plants, increase the efficiency of home appliances, and have the federal government itself produce less carbon pollution.” He can do this by directing the Environmental Protection Agency, for example, to issue regulations to decrease coal power plant emission, a move likely to face a litany of court challenges.
These types of actions build on Obama’s important but limited success on climate change from his first term. The rise in fuel standards for cars and trucks will help reduce the amount of carbon and other climate-warming pollutants spewed into the atmosphere. And the United States is on track to reduce, over the next seven years, its carbon pollution by 17% (from 2005 levels), just as Obama promised at the Copenhagen climate talks four years ago.
All of this is well and good. But it is barely a beginning, and likely isn’t enough action to avert what many scientists expect to be between a 2- and 11.5-degree Fahrenheit increase in temperatures globally by 2100, depending on the level of future greenhouse gas emissions, and the outcomes from various climate models. The effects of warming are already with us — sea levels are rising, economies are suffering, and people are dying from changing climate.
Obama’s new policy approach seems to accept both the limitations of his office and recognize the intransigence of his current opposition.
With the Neanderthal science caucus firmly entrenched in the 113th Congress, the president’s Congressional options are limited. Prodded by climate change deniers like the Koch brothers-funded Americans for Prosperity, the House is likely to reject any climate change legislation.
At Monday’s inaugural, Obama called out the deniers: “[S]ome may still deny the overwhelming judgment of science, but none can avoid the devastating impact of raging fires, and crippling drought, and more powerful storms.” If that’s true, then the president must do more than act at the margins. Although polling indicates that a vast majority of Americans now accept that the planet has warmed the past 100 years, only 49% believe that climate change is a “very serious” problem “if nothing is done to reduce global warming in the future.”
Perhaps, then, the president’s most important job between now and the 2014 mid-term elections is to raise that number — to foster a movement that will chase the climate change deniers from office. There is one important and thus far underused tool in the president’s arsenal that can help move the public on this urgent matter: the bully pulpit.
At his inauguration, Obama seemed keenly aware of this power. His desire to be remembered as a transformational president will be for naught if he is first remembered as the leader who had the last great chance to do something meaningful about climate change and failed.
Read more about The Public's Health.