The President's Glaring Omission

Obama Must Make Room for Climate Change

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By J.J. Goldberg

Published February 03, 2013, issue of February 08, 2013.
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Now that President Obama’s second-term agenda is coming into focus, this seems like the appropriate time to start getting nervous.

Not scared, necessarily. Scared can wait until after the State of the Union address on February 12. Meanwhile, just nervous.

The good news is that Obama appears at last to have found his mojo. He’s laid down his marker on three big crises that are emerging as the defining issues of his next two years, before he slides into lame-duck status. The three issues — budget, immigration and guns — will entail nasty, drawn-out battles. If past is prologue, the president will win more than he loses. The Republicans are a determined bunch, but Obama has a way of wearing down his opponents, once he’s given up trying to reason with them.

The bad news is that none of the three is climate change. Despite some fine words in his inauguration address, there’s no indication that he has a plan for serious action. And since three major battles per term are about all Washington can handle these days, it’s not clear there’s even room for a serious climate push in the face of Republican opposition. So unless the president has a big surprise in store on February 12, we’re looking at a climate agenda made up of small-bore regulatory changes that nibble around the edges. That doesn’t match up to the magnitude of the crisis we’re facing.

Okay, very nervous.

Just about every month brings another major study showing that things are worse, the effects arriving faster, the impact more severe, projections more dire than they were the month before. In October it was Munich Re, the world’s largest reinsurance company (they insure the insurers), warning of the mounting financial costs to its clients. In November it was the World Bank.

The latest is a 230-page report released January 28 by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the U.S. Geological Survey. Prepared by 80-odd scientists from the two agencies as well as NASA, the Pentagon and dozens of universities, it’s part of a massive National Climate Assessment that’s assembled every four years under a law passed by Congress in 1990, back when big majorities in both parties believed in science.

The report makes chilling reading, all the more so because it was completed last fall, before Hurricane Sandy. In dry, technical language it details the effects of global warming so far, and those that can be “confidently” predicted, on our coastal regions. These regions house about half the American population and produce 57% of the total U.S. economy ($8.3 trillion in 2010, the report says). The report describes tropical storms growing in frequency and severity, rising sea levels that swamp low-lying communities, storm surges that devastate densely populated, often low-income urban areas. Flooded sewage systems that pollute waterways, spreading disease through drinking water and poisoned seafood. New air-, animal- and insect-borne diseases as habitats change and species migrate to regions with no natural predators. I could go on.

Then there’s the eye-popping “Climate Vulnerability Monitor,” released last September by the Climate Vulnerable Forum, a group led by 20 mostly developing nations with the greatest exposure to global warming, plus 30 observer members including America, Britain and China.


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