Obama’s climate change quandary
After a campaign in which climate change did not come up, and after the East Coast weathered a storm that, if it was not brought on by climate change, felt an awful lot like the storms that will be, the president of the United States finally nodded in its direction. It was not much. It was not even a whole sentence. But it felt like the first rain after a long drought. From Barack Obama’s victory speech:
“We want our children to live in an America that isn’t burdened by debt, that isn’t weakened by inequality, that isn’t threatened by the destructive power of a warming planet.”
There it was—a sign that, although cap-and-trade legislation failed so wretchedly in Congress and although the Environmental Protection Agency has had to keep quiet about its work to limit carbon emissions, the president still remembers that climate change is a danger to this country. It is not clear that he is going to do anything about it, however: In his speech, he said his goals for his second term were “reducing our deficit, reforming our tax code, fixing our immigration system, freeing ourselves from foreign oil.” But since 2010, when the Senate gave up on passing a climate bill, it has seemed that politicians have forgotten how to talk about climate change ‑- or are too afraid to talk about it. If the country is ever going to deal with this threat, the first step is to start talking about it again.
Whether or not climate change made Sandy the beast it was, this latest storm was a preview of what global warming has in store for us ‑ big storms, with big storm surges, made worse by rising sea levels. But there will be no Pearl Harbor for climate change ‑ no one event that will allow a president to get on television the next day and say: Climate change has officially breached American defenses. Now, it’s personal. Climate change will not play out like an action movie. (Other than that one time it did.)
Instead, climate change is more like an insurgent group that will not take credit for its attacks. It is a dangerous enemy, but when it strikes, it is hard to pin down, immediately, who is to blame. The best intelligence on its movements is no good. Analysts are sure it will strike—but they cannot predict when. When the attacks come, they might suspect climate change, but they have to press hard on their best sources—data, climate models, historical trends—to know for sure. And how do the people without access to those sources know whether to trust the analysts? Enough bad luck and bad weather comes around that it is easy to believe that at least some of these disasters are random incidents.
What is a president to do? Start dealing with climate change the way we already prepare for terrorist threats. Towns, cities and states across the country use federal, state and local funds to prepare and protect themselves against terrorists. It’s time we find a way to give them the resources they need to prepare and protect themselves against the climate. With Congress refusing to engage in cap-and-trade policy, it’s Obama’s only option. Sometimes a president has to use the back door.
For the most part, state and local governments have been doing this work without much public support from their federal counterparts. The very systems that need to be shored up against the threats of climate change ‑ transportation infrastructure, natural resources like wetlands, public housing ‑ are among those that have lost funding as states cut budgets and Washington works on cutting deficits. After 9/11, Congress sent billions of dollars out of Washington to shore up defenses against terrorism. Meanwhile, some leaders in D.C. still refuse to admit that climate change is a problem. When experts on local climate adaptation testify before Congress, they have to endure Senator Jim Inhofe heaping scorn on the “global warming alarmist movement.”
Despite this, in some areas we are seeing what can happen when a government earmarks funds for climate preparation. PlaNYC promises that the city will improve its capability to capture and reroute intense rainfall, revise building standards to minimize damage from floodwaters and create a tool to assess climate risks and prioritize responses to them. Maryland is working to buy land to move wetlands and protect the coast from storm surges. California is looking at how to adapt crop management so that, as heat and rainfall patterns shift, its farmers can keep growing vegetables.
This is where the president should start, with the work that’s being done. He does not need to finger Sandy as the storm that swept climate change into the country. (That might even be a mistake, as the cold winter that is coming on the East Coast has already begun to bring out the climate denier in those who tend toward denial.) He just needs to lay out the threats to the country—dangers much like the ones Sandy brought—and talk about the good work state and local leaders are doing. Then he needs to say that the federal government will do everything it can to support those efforts.
He could go further, too. He could start talking about our dependence on carbon. If oil addiction makes terrorist groups stronger by throwing money at countries that fund them, carbon addiction makes climate change stronger, too. It is too soon to try for cap-and-trade again, but there are state and local initiatives that try, on smaller scales, to draw down carbon emissions. Obama could promise to support those initiatives—to reward businesses and governments that find creative ways to end their carbon addiction. And while simply talking about climate change will not necessarily convince skeptics, when the president keeps silent about the problem, they see it as a sign that they’re winning. “We can see how bad things have gotten for the alarmists,” Senator Inhofe said at the beginning of August. “President Obama himself never dares to mention global warming.”
Supporting local adaptation and sustainability efforts will not have the impact that a federal policy like cap-and-trade would have had. But if we are not going to do anything to stop climate change from getting worse, at least we can be ready to deal with the consequences of our ignorance.
PHOTO: Hurricane Sandy is seen on the east coast of the United States in this NASA handout satellite image taken at 0715 GMT, October 29, 2012. REUTERS/NASA/NOAA/GOES Project/Handout