Obama and climate change: keeping it real

Obama and climate change: keeping it real

By Keane Gruending

May 29, 2014

With the goal of leaving a lasting legacy on climate change, US President Obama has used much of his political capital over the last two years spurring action on the issue. Facing a polarized electorate and an uncooperative congress halfway through his second and final term, the president has and is using his executive powers to bypass congress and enact tough new rules on electricity, transportation, buildings, and clean energy.

Why is this important in the Canadian context? For one, the US is on track to meet its Copenhagen targets, while Canada will miss them by a large margin. The US and Canada are each other’s largest trading partners and have inextricably integrated economies: the government policies and nature of products demanded and sold in one country have an enormous impact on the other. Lastly, the Canadian federal government is a climate policy laggard and has tended to follow the US lead on the file.

Obama has upped the ante on vehicle fuel efficiency and set clean energy and building standards for government operations. Moreover, he is continuing to push for strict(ish) carbon emissions guidelines on new and existing power plants (the largest single source of GHG emissions in the US), which has proven to be a political lightning rod throughout coal country USA.

As difficult as climate policy-making has been since he began his presidency in 2009, it won’t be getting any easier given fast approaching mid-term elections that will almost assuredly see a deeper Republican grip on the house and a potential loss of the senate from Democrat to Republican control.

Yes, while public confidence in scientific evidence of climate change appears to be enjoying a slight rebound following a bottoming out during peak Great Recession days, US citizens still think legislators in DC have better things to do than pursue climate action (ranking it 19 out of 20 priority areas). Whatever the case may be disagreement on the causes of climate change, discounting the impacts of global warming, a strong belief in adaptation and technology, or doubts about the effectiveness of government intervention the political bellwether is firmly tilted away from climate.

What’s Obama’s latest strategy? It’s keeping climate change real.

The president’s plan is to communicate and highlight the ‘here and now’ impacts of climate change and build grassroots support for his policies. But will it work?

Throughout much of the month of May, Obama and his key officials have spent a large chunk of time and energy talking to the media in an attempt to change the channel back to climate change. Enter the latest US National Climate Assessment report that has compiled the work of over 300 scientists from a variety of disciplines, a key component of which is a slick new website. As part of a long telegraphed strategy, the president, his team, and the agencies he controls are drawing a direct line between climate change and the local and regional implications; Obama is relating the impacts of climate change on water, agriculture, energy provision, and ecosystems to the lives of everyday people.

Rather than attempt to address the knowledge-deficit gap, a strategy that tries to bring everyone up to speed on (difficult to understand) global climate science, the White House is instead drawing attention to the localized impacts of climate change. The theory is that everyone can relate to what’s happening in their backyard, a place that is both highly visible and where cooperation whether economic or in the face of emergency is often a matter of survival. Moreover, a look out the front window or glance at the local paper can bypass the increasingly talked about values filter that pervert and politicise science and evidence-based policy-making. It lessens the influence of ideology where blog readers and cable subscribers  can pick their flavour of reality based on their political orientation and opinions on the role of government.

Time will tell whether the strategy pays off, but it seems to make sense from a conceptual standpoint. The danger, however, lies in the blurring of the lines between ‘the weather’, which is highly variable and can behave in ways that are counterintuitive to ‘global warming’ (like snow, a result of evaporation and increased temperatures), and climate change, which slowly manifests over decades.

Political depolarization is essential as a means of building consensus and trust towards cutting emissions, and a large component of that is demonstrating that everyone has some ‘skin in the game’. The real trick is in emphasizing the time value of action: today’s emissions cuts are easier than tomorrows and will result in better outcomes for everybody.

For us Canadians, we would do well to imagine that the border doesn't exist and try to understand how climate change will affect the Northwest, Great Plains, Midwest, and Northeast. That's the story of how it will affect us.

(Icon photo courtesy of nasahqphoto/Flickr)


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