President Obama with Governor Chris Christie in New Jersey talking to victims of Hurricane Sandy. Photo by: Pete Souza.
Following the devastation wrought by Hurricane Sandy—which many scientists say was likely worsened by climate change—and a long silence on the issue of global warming during the Presidential campaign, environmentalists yesterday were disappointed when re-elected President Barack Obama seemingly put action on climate change on the back burner.
“There’s no doubt that for us to take on climate change in a serious way would involve making some tough political choices, and you know, understandably, I think the American people right now have been so focused and will continue to be focused on our economy and jobs and growth that, you know, if the message is somehow we’re going to ignore jobs and growth simply to address climate change, I don’t think anybody’s going to go for that,” President Obama said at a press conference in response a question by New York Times reporter, Mark Landler.
The President added, “I won’t go for that.”
His statement, which could be viewed as a signal that climate change is still not a big priority in the White House, put climate activists on guard.
“While conventional D.C. wisdom is focused on the manufactured crisis of the ‘fiscal cliff,’ the truth is that the most urgent threat to our national safety and economic well-being is the climate cliff that we are already beginning to tumble over,” Brad Johnson, campaign manager of ClimateSilence.org, said in a response.
Following Obama’s re-election on November 6th, the environmental community is hoping for a new chance at tackling climate change at the federal level, especially with renewed media and political interest in the issue following Hurricane Sandy. Such hopes have been buoyed by Obama’s reference to climate change in his victory speech after beating Mitt Romney at the polls. In addition, over the past week there has even been significant chatter in Washington D.C. of installing a carbon tax, perhaps as apart of an agreement to avoid the “fiscal cliff.”
However, President Obama made no mention to specific policies at the press conference, instead stating that he was going to have “a wide-ranging conversation with scientists, engineers and elected officials to find out what more can we do to make short-term progress in reducing carbons and […] what realistically can we do long term to make sure that this is not something we’re passing on to future generations that’s going to be very expensive and very painful to deal with.”
Obama did re-iterate that he accepts the science of climate change and that impacts—such as melting Arctic sea ice—are occurring faster than predicted. In addition, he stated flatly “we haven’t done as much as we need to.” Such words gave some environmental commentators hope that Obama would move eventually on the issue, however many have been urging Obama for years to become a “climate hawk”—not just taking swift and large-scale action to reduce emission, but also fully communicating with the American people about the threats posed by a warming world, including impacts on national security and the economy.
It’s not just American environmentalists that see a new possibility for climate action after the U.S. election. The European Union’s climate commissioner, Connie Hedegaard, said this week that she hopes “the re-elected president will pull his whole weight now into this area.”
“I’m absolutely sure that that could make a difference not only internally in the United States, but also at the international scene,” she added.
But perhaps, Will Oremus with Slate.com put the criticism of Obama’s statements on climate change yesterday most succinctly in a series of five tweets: “Here is Obama on climate change, in four short sentences. 1) Climate change is real. 2) We have an obligation to future generations to do something about it. 3) Doing something about it will require tough political choices. 4) I’m not willing to make those tough political choices.”
Of course, Obama’s statements, whether perceived negatively or positively by those promoting action on climate change, came only eight days after his re-election and much will likely change in the next four years.
In fact, what may have been most remarkable about Obama’s discussion of climate change yesterday was not his response, but the fact that the president was asked the question in the first place. The U.S. media has spent the last few years largely avoiding the issue of climate change, even in light of record fires, droughts, floods, and heatwaves across the country, not to mention the great Arctic ice melt. In four presidential debates, not one question was asked about climate change and none of the candidates brought it up. In fact, yesterday’s question, put forward by Mark Landler, would probably never have been asked if Hurricane Sandy hadn’t decimated the U.S. East Coast killing over a hundred people and causing an estimated $20 billion in damages.
President Obama is in New York today seeing some of the damage first hand.
(11/14/2012) At a news conference today, a question by New York Times reporter Mark Landler pushed President Obama to speak at some length about climate change. In his answer, Obama re-iterated his acceptance of climate science and discussed how progress on tackling climate change might proceed in his second term, though he also noted that he wouldn’t put action on the climate ahead of the economy. President Obama made a small reference to climate change in his victory speech following his historic re-election last Tuesday, but his answer today was the most the president has talked about the issue at any length since at least Hurricane Sandy.
(11/07/2012) Hours after President Obama’s historic re-election, climate group 350.org announced a massive rally to apply pressure on the administration to reject the Keystone Pipeline, which would bring tar sands from Alberta to an international market. In 2011 the group and its partners carried out massive civil disobedience action, resulting in over 1,000 arrests, and a rally 12,000-strong that literally encircled the White House. The pressure, which was also brought to Obama campaign offices around the country, helped spur the Obama Administration to suspend the pipeline.
(11/05/2012) As the devastation wrought by Hurricane Sandy—killing over 100 people and producing upwards of $50 billion in damage along the U.S. East Coast—has reignited a long-dormant conversation on climate change in the media, it’s important to note that this is not the only weird and wild weather the U.S. has seen this year. In fact, 2012 has been a year of record-breaking weather across the U.S.: the worst drought in decades, unprecedented heatwaves, and monster forest fires. While climatologists have long stated that it is not yet possible to blame a single extreme weather event on climate change, research is showing that rising temperatures are very likely increasing the chances of extreme weather events and worsening them when they occur.
(10/30/2012) On Sunday, as Hurricane Sandy roared towards the coast of the Eastern U.S., activists took to the streets in New York City to highlight the issue of climate change. Activists organized by 350.org unfurled a huge parachute in Times Square with the words, “End Climate Silence,” a message meant to call attention to the fact that there has been almost zero mention of climate change during the presidential campaign, including not a single reference to the issue in the four presidential debates.
(10/29/2012) While scientists are still debating some fundamental questions regarding hurricanes and climate change (such as: will climate change cause more or less hurricanes?), there’s no debating that a monster hurricane is now imperiling the U.S. East Coast. A few connections between a warmer world and Hurricane Sandy can certainly be made, however: rising sea levels are likely to worsen storm surges; warmer waters bring more rain to increase flooding; and hotter temperatures may allow the hurricane to push both seasonal and geographic boundaries.
(10/23/2012) The final presidential debate between President Barack Obama and Governor Mitt Romney, focusing on foreign policy, ended like all the others: without a mention of climate change or its likely impacts on Americans, from rising sea levels to worsening extreme weather to the threat of instability abroad. While environmental groups have kicked-off a campaign to target this “climate silence,” the lack of discussion on climate change is a part of a larger trend in the U.S. where media coverage of the issue has declined even as scientists argue that impacts are increasing.
(10/17/2012) This year saw the Arctic sea ice extent fall to a new and shocking low, while the U.S. experienced it warmest month ever on record (July), beating even Dust Bowl temperatures. Meanwhile, a flood of new research has convincingly connected a rise in extreme weather events, especially droughts and heatwaves, to global climate change, and a recent report by the DARA Group and Climate Vulnerability Forum finds that climate change contributes to around 400,000 deaths a year and costs the world 1.6 percent of its GDP, or $1.2 trillion. All this and global temperatures have only risen about 0.8 degrees Celsius (1.44 degrees Fahrenheit) since the early Twentieth Century. Scientists predict that temperatures could rise between 1.1 degrees Celsius (2 degrees Fahrenheit) to a staggering 6.4 degrees Celsius (11.5 degrees Fahrenheit) by the end of the century.
(10/16/2012) September 2012 tied with 2005 for the warmest on record around the globe, according to new data released by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). The average land and ocean temperature was 16.27 degrees Celsius (61.31 degrees Fahrenheit) for this September, 0.67 degrees Celsius (1.21 degrees Fahrenheit) above the 20th Century average for the month. Shockingly, this is the 331st month in a row that has been above the 20th Century average.
(10/15/2012) Beginning next year, Norway will nearly double the carbon tax on its domestic oil industry to help set up a $1 billion climate change fund for programs in developing nations among other green projects. The Scandinavian nation is the world’s 13 largest oil producer and third biggest oil exporter, yet has been one of the most active champions of funding climate change projects.
(10/10/2012) According to a new poll, 74 percent of Americans agree that climate change is impacting weather in the U.S., including 73 percent who agreed, strongly or somewhat, that climate change had exacerbated record high temperatures over the summer. The findings mean that a large majority of Americans agree with climatologists who in recent years have found increasingly strong evidence that climate change has both increased and worsened extreme weather events.