Thursday, November 8, 2012

Obama breaks silence on climate change. Does this presage action in his second term?

It was one of the most unexpected lines in Barack Obama's barnstorming acceptance speech, and it got one of the biggest outbreaks of applause. After saying virtually nothing about climate change in many months, he declared: “We want our children to live in an America that isn't threatened by the destructive power of a warming planet”.

It may not have been much, but it broke a long silence – and one that contrasted with the last presidential campaign. Four years ago, both he and John McCain – who had long been the foremost champion of action on global warming in the US Senate, with a far better record than Obama – made it a centrepiece of their campaigns.

This time it was ignored – even though the President remains convinced of its importance and though Mitt Romney, as Governor of Massachusetts, had prepared pioneering measures to reduce emissions, making the need to tackle global warming a 'mantra', according to one aide, before changing position when preparing to run for the White House. For the first time since 1988 it was not mentioned by either candidate in any of the presidential debates.

Of course, it intruded perforce, with the tragic devastation from Superstorm Sandy in the closing week of the campaign. Not that the storm can be attributed to climate change – though it looks as if unusually warm temperatures in the Atlantic and rising sea levels made it worse – but it served as a warning of the kind of thing scientists predict will occur as the world heats up. Importantly, it lead to a surprise endorsement of Mr Obama by New York's mayor Michael Bloomberg – a Republican turned Independent – on the grounds of climate change, saying that the disaster had brought what was at stake in the election “into sharp relief”.

The silence over global warming has of course much to do with the Republican's wholescale rejection of the overwhelming scientific consensus over the last few years. This is accompanied by a wider opposition to green measures. In the first six months after coming under Republican control in 2010, the House of Representatives voted 110 times to kill or emasculate initiatives from controlling air and water pollution to protecting parks and coastlines, an assault unprecedented in congressional history.

Yet this, too, is a new departure. For much of the last half century, Republicans not only vied with Democrats in environmental concern, but did more to put it into practice. Much of this was down to the first Nixon Administration.

Impressed that voters in the 1968 election ranked the environment only behind the economy and the Vietnam War – and expecting to face a green opponent, Ed Muskie, in 1972 – Nixon, of all people, presided over the construction of the edifice of institutions and legislation that his heirs are now attacking- including the powerful Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and tough, pioneering acts to clean up air and water pollution, protect wildlife and require government bodies to prepare 'environmental impact statements' for their proposals.

He moved a planned airport that would have endangered the Everglades and scrapped a controversial Florida canal prioritised by John Kennedy. Abroad, his administration led drives that resulted in international measures to regulate trade in endangered species, prevent dumping waste at sea and ban commercial whaling.

His ardour, admittedly, cooled as his presidency descended into deceit and disgrace, and Ronald Reagan came to office determined to reduce environmental regulation. But 'the Gipper' found there was little he could do in the face of public opposition – and ended up signing 38 bills that preserved 10.6 million acres of forests, mountains, wetlands and deserts as protected wilderness. And his administration led the successful international campaign to save the ozone layer.

His successor, the elder George Bush, campaigned on a promise to be “the environment president”,and appointed William Reilly the most respected head of the EPA to date, who cleaned up toxic waste sites, introduced effective measures to tackle acid rain and ( with the help of Michael Howard) persuaded the President to sign up to the international treaty on climate change.

All this was consistent with a right-wing environmental tradition stretching back to Edmund Burke and Theodore Roosevelt and also taken up by Margaret Thatcher. But the backlash was already under way, pioneered by Bush's orthographically-challenged vice-president, Dan Quayle.

Partly fuelled by Al Gore – who politicised the issue while doing little in office – partly buttressed by evangelicals believing it blasphemous to suggest that humanity can affect God's creation, it has now taken over the party.

It is hard to believe it will last. US public opinion is overwhelmingly,and increasingly. green. Seventy per cent, one recent poll reports, believe in global warming, up 13 per cent in under three years (only 12 per cent deny it). And another this week found that two to one majority believed it increased natural disasters.

Obama, meanwhile, according to close aides “totally gets the importance of climate change”.There have long been rumours that Obama would like to make it a legacy issue for his second them. Was the unexpected line in his speech a sign that he will push it up the agenda? I wouldn't bet on it, but you never know.

Tags: Barack Obama, climate change, Dan Quayle, George Bush, global warming, John McCain, Margaret Thatcher, Michael Bloomburg, Michael Howard, Mitt Romney, Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, superstorm Sandy, William Reilly

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