November 7, 2012

Climate Change and the Reluctant Electorate

"We want our children to live in an America that isn’t burdened by debt, that isn’t weakened by inequality, that isn’t threatened by the destructive power of a warming planet."

With these few words in President Obama's acceptance speech did the issue of climate change enter the 2012 US presidential elections: at the very end. In fact, after it was over. The subject was apparently considered so toxic that neither candidate was willing to touch on it during their campaigns: not in their stump speeches, not in their ubiquitous ads, not in the debates. The emphasis was always on the domestic economy.

Exit polls have shown that this is the right tactic for the campaigns: voters overwhelmingly cite the economy as their foremost concern. Climate change didn't make it to the top five motivators for their vote.

Now that the subject of global warming is explicitly on the national table, I am cautiously optimistic that we will see progress in the next four years under Obama. After all, This is the president who has backed the development of alternative energy sources. Some of those projects have ended in tears. But that always happens in the development of new technologies. Just look at the record of Bell Laboratories: it is justly famous as an incubator of novel technologies - but a rather staggering number of discoveries and inventions were made there that never saw the light of day (but did use up large research budgets).

This is also the president who broke a three-decade long record of neglect on the fuel efficiency requirements for cars, with the introduction in July 2011 of the new CAFE emissions requirements. That happened relatively quietly, and it soon faded from the news channels. But it did help get the national fleet of new cars achieve an all-time high in fuel efficiency recently: apparently consumers are ready for gas sipper cars.

While the motivation for that lies largely in the rising price of gasoline, coupled with the persistent recession, the US is set to reign in what in most households is the largest single source of CO2 emissions.

How fast and how far we will manage to move down that path depends very much on the public perception of how urgent the situation is, and how our consumer lifestyle is directly linked to what has been termed a planetary crisis.

Make no mistake: Climate change is the largest threat to the US: in terms of physical security, food security, energy security, economic implications. Still, the changes we need to make to stop or slow climate change are unpalatable to those of us who have been embedded in consumer culture. There are good reasons why climate change denial stubbornly refuses to go away; but it is the first thing we need to tackle so that we can move forward to remedy the human-generated causes of climate change.

While Americans appreciate President Obama's action in the face of superstorm Sandy, he now needs to start the difficult task to convince the nation that in the case of climate change, preventive action is urgently needed. In the long term it is better (and certainly cheaper) than mopping up after the consequences.


This post is part of a linky party hosted by Green Lifestyle Consulting and Crunchy Farm Baby.



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