Nothing surprised as much in the president’s second Inaugural Address as the high priority he placed on responding to climate change. Mind you, the problem deserves the prominence, the latest warning coming from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, 2012 rating the hottest year on record, surpassing the previous high, set in 1998, by a full degree. That represents a sharp advance, especially as scientists find other aspects of global warming outpacing their models.
During his first term, President Obama hardly fixed his attention on the matter. Legislation designed to curb greenhouse emissions collapsed in Congress. In the recent campaign, he made few references, even sending uncertain messages since the vote. Part of that was sheer practicality, Republicans gaining control of the House, the struggling economy front and center.
Hard to overlook has been “the devastating impact of raging fires, and crippling drought, and more powerful storms,” as the president put it in his address. How much the warming planet has contributed to such events is difficult to say. What should be plain is the need for action, an insurance policy of sorts, a hedge against the risk.
In that way, the president made clear that he wasn’t moved merely by the likes of Hurricane Sandy, its impact heightened by higher sea levels. He reminded that “our obligations as Americans are not just to ourselves, but to all posterity,” adding that “we will respond to the threat of climate change knowing that the failure to do so would betray our children and future generations.”
How might the president overcome congressional opposition? The White House points to the use of executive authority. It already has brokered an agreement on increasing fuel-efficiency in cars and trucks. This could be supplemented with new efficiency standards for home appliances and buildings. The Environmental Protection Agency must apply stiffer requirements on coal-burning power plants, achieving a tougher bite by allowing greater time for compliance. The Pentagon has been a leader in converting to renewable fuels.
A most valuable step forward would be the president using his megaphone to make a strong and consistent public argument for why action is necessary. He can explain how such steps complement economic growth, the benefits exceeding the costs, the boom in natural gas bringing fewer carbon emissions, expanded research and development fueling innovation in clean technologies.
The argument rightly is made that the United States cannot address climate change on its own. The problem is global, requiring collaboration among nations. That is no small task, as Kyoto and other rounds of negotiations have shown. What would help is this country taking the lead, the president gaining influence by backing his welcome words with real action.