Barack Obama can take pride in having fought off a formidable array of deep-pocketed revanchists. As President, however, he is faced with an infinitely larger challenge, one that went unmentioned in the debates but that poses a graver threat than any “fiscal cliff.” Ever since 1988, when NASA’s James Hansen, a leading climate scientist, testified before the Senate, the public has been exposed to the issue of global warming. More recently, the consequences have come into painfully sharp focus. In 2010, the Pentagon declared, in its Quadrennial Defense Review, that changes in the global climate are increasing the frequency and the intensity of cyclones, droughts, floods, and other radical weather events, and that the effects may destabilize governments; spark mass migrations, famine, and pandemics; and prompt military conflict in particularly vulnerable areas of the world, including the Middle East, Southeast Asia, and sub-Saharan Africa. The Pentagon, that bastion of woolly radicals, did what the many denialists in the House of Representatives refuse to do: accept the basic science.
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 preëlection 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.
Meanwhile, the paltry attempts to reduce global warming are being overtaken elsewhere by the attempt to raise hundreds of millions of people out of abject poverty. Advances in living standards in China, India, and Africa will radically increase the demand for cars, televisions, air-conditioners, washing machines—in short, the demand for power and the burning of fossil fuels. There will be time to deal with climate change, politicians have persuaded themselves. But there will not be a better time. There will only be worse times.
This election hinted at the defeat of a certain kind of magical thinking. It was a defeat for the idea that deficits can be reduced with across-the-board tax breaks. It was a defeat for Rovian analysts who defy statistics and infer from the “enthusiasm” of rallies that their man will win in a landslide. It was a defeat for the fantasy that the President was born in Kenya and has a secret socialist agenda.
But Obama must now defeat an especially virulent form of magical thinking, entrenched on Capitol Hill and elsewhere: that a difficulty delayed is a difficulty allayed. Part of American exceptionalism is that, historically, this country has been the exceptional polluter and is therefore exceptionally responsible for leading the effort to heal the planet. It will be a colossal task, enlisting science, engineering, technology, regulation, legislation, and persuasion. We have seen the storms, the droughts, the costs, and the chaos; we know what lies in store if we fail to take action. The effort should begin with a sustained Presidential address to the country, perhaps from the Capitol, on Inauguration Day. It was there that John Kennedy initiated a race to the moon—meagre stakes compared with the health of the planet we inhabit. ♦