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When Will Obama Act on Catastrophic Climate Change?

Unless we act fairly soon in response to the timetable set by physics, there’s not much reason to act at all.

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That’s why his administration is sometimes peeved when they don’t get the credit they think they deserve for tackling the issue in his first term in office. The measure they point to most often is the  increase in average mileage for automobiles, which will slowly go into effect over the next decade.

It’s precisely the kind of gradual transformation that people -- and politicians -- like. We should have adopted it long ago (and would have, except that it challenged the power of Detroit and its unions, and so both Republicans and Democrats kept it at bay). But here’s the terrible thing: it’s no longer a measure that impresses physics.  After all, physics isn’t kidding around or negotiating.  While we were discussing whether climate change was even a permissible subject to bring up in the last presidential campaign, it was  melting the Arctic. If we’re to slow it down, we need to be cutting emissions globally at a  sensational rate, by something like 5% a year to make a real difference.

It’s not Obama’s fault that that’s not happening. He can’t force it to happen. Consider the moment when the great president of the last century, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, was confronted with an implacable enemy, Adolf Hitler (the closest analog to physics we’re going to get, in that he was insanely solipsistic, though in his case also evil). Even as the German armies started to roll through Europe, however, FDR couldn’t muster America to get off the couch and fight.

There were even the equivalent of climate deniers at that time, happy to make the case that Hitler presented no threat to America.  Indeed, some of them were the same institutions.  The  U.S. Chamber of Commerce, for instance, vociferously  opposed Lend-Lease. 

So Roosevelt did all he could on his own authority, and then when Pearl Harbor offered him his moment, he pushed as hard as he possibly could. Hard, in this case, meant, for instance,  telling the car companies that they were out of the car business for a while and instead in the tank and fighter-plane business.

For Obama, faced with a Congress  bought off by the fossil fuel industry, a realistic approach would be to do absolutely everything he could on his own authority -- new Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulations, for example; and of course, he should refuse to grant the permit for the building of the  Keystone XL tar sands pipeline, something that requires no permission from John Boehner or the rest of Congress.

So far, however, he’s been half-hearted at best when it comes to such measures.  The White House, for instance,  overruled the EPA on its proposed stronger ozone and smog regulations in 2011, and last year  openedup the Arctic for oil drilling, while  selling off vast swaths of Wyoming’s Powder River Basin at bargain-basement prices to coal miners. His State Department flubbed the global climate-change negotiations.  (It’s hard to remember a higher profile diplomatic failure than the Copenhagen summit.)  And now Washington rings with rumors that he’ll approve the  Keystone pipeline, which would deliver 900,000 barrels a day of the dirtiest crude oil on Earth.  Almost to the drop, that’s the amount his new auto mileage regulations would save.

If he were serious, Obama would be doing more than just the obvious and easy.  He’d also be looking for that Pearl Harbor moment. God knows he had his chances in 2012: the  hottest year in the history of the continental United States, the deepest drought of his  lifetime, and a melt of the Arctic so severe that the federal government’s premier climate scientist  declared it a “planetary emergency.”

 
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