Obama surprises with climate commitment

After a general election campaign in which environmental issues received almost no attention, it was heartening, but very surprising, to hear President Barack Obama give such prominence to fighting climate change in his 2nd Inaugural Address. He commented:

“We will respond to the threat of climate change, knowing that the failure to do so would betray our children and future generations.

Some may still deny the overwhelming judgment of science, but none can avoid the devastating impact of raging fires, and crippling drought, and more powerful storms.

The path towards sustainable energy sources will be long and sometimes difficult. But America cannot resist this transition; we must lead it. We cannot cede to other nations the technology that will power new jobs and new industries – we must claim its promise.

That is how we will maintain our economic vitality and our national treasure – our forests and waterways; our croplands and snowcapped peaks.”

For those of us who believe in the imminent threat of human-made global warming — and I suspect we are a minority in the chemical industry — this is a heartening statement. But can this broad, but determined, goal become a reality?

Obama may have the wind at his back. As long as the price of natural gas stays low, the shift to this fuel to power reviving US industrial production will bring with it big cuts in CO2 emissions compared with burning coal or oil. The reductions could be up to 50% according to some estimates. And the share of coal and oil fuels in the US mix has started to fall already.

But great care will have to be taken to ensure that the gains are preserved — starting with careful regulation of fracking to capture any escaping methane, which is itself a more powerful greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide.

While the shift to burning gas will bend the curve of CO2 emissions, consolidating those gains would probably require a new coalition in the legislature which I think is unlikely to emerge. Truly to reform the US’ relation to GHG producing materials would almost certainly require disadvantaging them by levying taxes on them. But once you start down that road, you hit a lot of obstacles. First you have to get the legislation written and passed. But what do you do then to influence other countries so that your own progressive thinking does not disadvantage your own industrialists? A future of import tariffs on others’ carbon production is just not feasible.

Overall, I think that Obama will have some success in elevating the discussion of GHGs and will fire up the public to want to bend the GHG curve in the USA. But four years is not enough to take the type of global action that true change will require, even given the power and influence of the USA.

Let’s hope that the next president is also as determined as Obama seems to be, and that the public’s attention on this subject proves sustained.