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Action On Climate Change Must Be On President Obama’s Second Term Agenda

November 12, 2012

The fact that climate change was not addressed by the presidential candidates in the debates was most unfortunate, given the problems that are staring us in the face regarding this matter.  Too often we hear about the ‘worst storm in a lifetime’, but once the average person have lived through 3-4 of them it no longer is a blip but a trend.

There needs to be real sustained focus on climate change in the second term of the Obama presidency.  The editor of The New Yorker, David Remnick, uses the lead ‘Talk of the Town’ item, ‘No More Magical Thinking,’ to urge President Obama to address climate change.  I am glad he chose this venue to connect with the nation, and our leaders.

The economic impact of weather events that are almost certainly related to  the warming of the earth—the European heat wave of 2003 (which left fifty  thousand people dead), the Russian heat waves and forest fires of 2010, the  droughts last year in Texas and Oklahoma, and the pre-election natural  catastrophe known as Sandy—has been immense. The German insurer Munich Re  estimates that the cost of weather-related calamities in North America over the  past three decades amounts to thirty-four billion dollars a year. Governor  Andrew Cuomo, of New York, has said that Sandy will cost his state alone  thirty-three billion. Harder to measure is the human toll around the world—the  lives and communities disrupted and destroyed.

“If we are willing to work for it, and fight for it, and believe in it,” Obama said, when he clinched the Democratic nomination in 2008, future  generations will look back and say, “This was the moment when the rise of the  oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal.” Those generations assuredly  will not. Although Obama, unlike his predecessor, recognized the dimensions of  the problem, he never pursued measures remotely equal to it. To his credit, his  Administration has directed ninety billion dollars to investments in clean  energy, and has secured several billion for energy-conservation upgrades; he got  Detroit to agree to better gas-mileage standards, and finally introduced  CO2 emission standards for commercial trucks and buses. For the most  part, though, the accumulating crisis of climate change has been treated as a  third-tier issue.

Last week, in his acceptance speech, Obama mentioned climate change once  again. Which is good, but, at this late date, he gets no points for mentioning.  The real test of his determination will be a willingness to step outside the  day-to-day tumult of Washington politics and establish a sustained sense of  urgency. 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.

Inaction on climate change has an insidious ally: time. As the writer and  activist Bill McKibben writes in The New York Review of Books, “Global  warming happens just slowly enough that political systems have been able to  ignore it. The distress signal is emitted at a frequency that scientists can  hear quite clearly, but is seemingly just beyond the reach of most politicians.” When the financial system collapsed, the effects were swift and dramatic. People  could debate how best to fix the problem, but they could not doubt that there  was a problem and it had to be fixed. Yet, as Nicholas Stern, a former chief  economist of the World Bank, who studied the costs of climate change for the  British government, has observed, the risks are vastly greater than those posed  by the collapse of the Western financial system.

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