After the hottest summer on record and yet another devastating natural disaster, a ferocious hurricane that managed to paralyze the entire East Coast and left parts of the country devastated, climate change and its repercussions have slowly crept back into the national rhetoric.
“I don't call it ‘global warming’ because you trigger a whole political debate,” said New York Governor Andrew Cuomo in an interview with Jim Dwyer of The New York Times after the storm, echoing the sentiment of many of his colleagues. “But the frequency of extreme weather is going way up." And in an essay in the New York Daily News, he added that New York will lead on climate change: "We will not allow the national paralysis over climate change to stop us. We need to act."
New York’s Republican mayor Michael Bloomberg, a staunch advocate for public environmental policies and regulations, endorsed Obama for re-election in the wake of Hurricane Sandy. His move was seen as yet another mandate for the president to change priorities in Washington, put tougher federal climate change policies on the map and lead the international community in this global effort.
During the election campaign, Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney repeatedly sneered at the president through bouts of laughter from his supporters that his opponent wanted to prevent “the seas from rising” and mocked him for his “unhealthy obsession with green jobs.” In return, Obama reiterated that environmental policies were directly linked to the economy, giving his supporters hope that in its second term, an Obama administration would show more muscle and determination in implementing regulations. And even though the term ‘climate change’ never made it into the presidential debates, in his victory speech, the president returned to the topic and spoke of the destructive power of a warming planet.
Could Obama’s re-election provide an opportunity to make a lasting impact on America’s long-term environmental policies? No doubt, expectations are high for Obama to make good on his promises. But that won’t happen overnight.
With the economy hanging in the balance and the so-called fiscal cliff threatening to push it over the edge, climate change rules and regulations, now more than ever, seem to be dead on arrival in Congress. In his first press conference after his re-election, on November 14, 2012, President Obama emphasized that the administration could address both the economy and climate, but given a choice between the two, the president stated, “there is no choice for me: I will go with the economy.” And right now, he doesn’t seem to have a choice.
If a budget deal isn't reached in time to reduce the national debt, across-the-board cuts will go into effect in January that would directly impact the environment as well: cuts in science research, the closure of some National Parks and National Wildlife Refuges, cuts to EPA research and air monitoring programs, reductions in green infrastructure and cuts to energy efficiency and renewable energy programs; but they could also manifest in cuts in fossil fuel subsidies.
That said, the administration has already put in place new admission standards that are in compliance with global emission reduction regulations until 2020. That effort is backed by a growing number of mayors and governors, who in the last decade have imposed their own strict environmental regulations in what is seen as a grass-roots effort to regulate on a state level what the federal government can’t accomplish, thus circumventing Congress entirely. But if the United States wants to continue complying with strict international regulations after 2020, it would have to act now.
“The truth is, we’ve got to do it,” opines environmental activist Bill McKibben in The Washington Post. “It will be hard, harder than anything else the administration is considering, since it runs straight up against the richest industry on Earth. Step up, Mr. President: No more worries about re-election. Now you can tackle those issues that you said had to wait for your second term."
To be fair, the Obama administration already proposed incentives in its first term, like tax credits for clean energy development (i.e. wind energy and solar), greenhouse gas regulations enforced by the Environmental Protection Agency and pollution control for power and coal plants under the Clean Air Act; it has stalled the Keystone XL Pipeline from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico and imposed stricter rules on car makers to nearly double fuel efficiencies by 2025. Even a bipartisan carbon tax is now on the negotiating table.
But the so-called Senate Climate Change Bill and a federal cap-and-trade proposal were blocked in a bitter bi-partisan Congress, and given the current balance of power in the House and the Senate, that bill, or any other for that matter, will face many obstacles, even though the president vowed he would find the votes. So far, he hasn’t found them, “and he didn't appear to be looking very hard,” commented The New Yorker’s Ryan Lizza. But “after a blistering summer, record Arctic sea ice melt and now Hurricane Sandy, let's hope that the president is prepared to turbo-charge the growing momentum for action,” adds Kelly Rigg in The Huffington Post.
“We’re still a long, long ways off from a world that isn’t threatened by the destructive power of a warming planet,” comments Brad Plumer in The Washington Post. “By itself, Obama’s re-election can’t change that. There’s a whole lot more he’d need to do.” But an Obama second term, he adds, “could have fairly significant implications for energy and climate policy.” And now, many of his first term initiatives won’t likely be repealed; but the president needs to convince the average American of their importance since about 30 percent still dismiss climate change as a “green bubble soon to burst”.
“The real test of [Obama’s] determination will be a willingness to step outside the day-to-day tumult of Washington politics and establish a sustained sense of urgency,” concludes David Remnick in The New Yorker. “There will always be real and consuming issues to draw his and the political class’s attention: a marital scandal at the C.I.A., a fiscal battle, an immigration bill, an international crisis. But, all the while, a greater menace grows ever more formidable.”
By mail.com editor Tekla Szymanski