President Barack Obama has stoked hopes that he will not only fight climate change during his final term, but make it part his overriding legacy. During his second inaugural speech as the 44th leader of the United States, a greyer but wiser Obama gave the issue more attention than at any time during his first term:
"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."
The President's speech was warmly welcomed by the environmental community who are now looking to his State of the Union speech next month for more specific details in term of policy. In the words of Lou Leonard from the World Wildlife Fund:
"Today's address is an important first step for using the power of the presidency to spur a practical national conversation on climate change. But, a sustained national conversation isn't enough. The president should lay out the steps he can and will take to clean up our energy system and encourage the rest of the world to ramp up action."
Obama's speech comes two months after climate change took centre stage in the US election when super storm Sandy swept across the north eastern seaboard to leave much of New York City submerged under water. Creating scenes reminiscent of a Hollywood blockbuster movie, the storm was a brutal reminder of what global warming may look like in the future if it continues to run riot. The super storm came during the hottest year on record, following a US summer of intense heat, raging wildfires and the worst drought in half a century.
Although campaigners are pleased that Obama has tacked climate change onto his second term agenda, many doubt that he will be able to push through any real change given the Republican's firm grip on Congress. But, as Edward Luce in the Financial Times points out, although there is "a deep sense of fatalism that politics will never permit real action ... We are living in the Obama era not the House Republican era."
Moreover, the world no longer has time for such playground politics. According to the World Bank, our planet may warm by up to four degrees celsius within the next 50 years. In one of the starkest warnings issued by a global body yet, it says that there is "no certainty that adaptation to a 4 degrees Celsius world is even possible. A 4 degrees Celsius world can, and must, be avoided."
Although some governments cite the poor economy as a reason for not addressing climate change, the World Economic Forum has warned that we are only heading closer to both "financial and ecological collapse." According to the UN Millennium Institute, innovating the green sector may provide one of the best ways to tackle both problems simultaneously. It says that if the US contributed as little as 2% of its GDP to the green economy over the next 5 years, it could create up to 20 million new "decent" jobs.
According to a recent study published in Nature, political action is our greatest ally in the fight against global warming. And, unless America puts its own house in order, it will lack credibility at international negotiations.
As the US and China are the world's largest economies and biggest carbon polluters, the commitment of these two powerhouses is key. According to the Brookings Institution, the two countries generate nearly half of the world's greenhouse gases every year:
"To date each nation has used the other as one reason not to do more. Enormous benefits would be possible if this dynamic were replaced with mutual understanding and joint efforts on a large scale. The major failing in U.S.-China relations to date is that, despite much progress over the past 30 years, mutual distrust over each other's long-term intentions remains deep."
If Beijing and Washington were to cast aside their differences, a strong US-Sino relationship could also "contribute to the success of multilateral climate change negotiations. U.S.-China cooperation on climate change and clean energy can also help each country enhance its energy security and pursue a sustainable economic path that will create jobs and promote economic recovery."
The timing for such an alliance couldn't be better as Beijing will usher in its new generation of leaders headed by Xi Jinping this March. Moreover, the environment has taken centre stage in China recently. Earlier this month, the capital stole international headlines after it became cloaked in a thick apocalyptic smog which resulted in a 30% rise in hospital admissions. China's double-digit economic growth over the past 30 years has come at the environment's great expense, with Beijing's air quality becoming the latest and perhaps most visible victim.
In many ways, China is in a better position to tackle climate change than America. Unlike the US, it has the power to bring about real change because its leaders are in power for 10 years without the threat of being thrown out. But, any change at the global level will require sustained cooperation from both sides of the Pacific.
In the words of Edward Luce in the FT: "To paraphrase an old saying, all that is required for global warming to turn catastrophic is for good men to do nothing." With the threat of a four degree celsius temperature rise sitting on our collective horizon, let's hope that both Obama and Xi appreciate the full extent of their responsibility. For the meantime however, let's take comfort in Vice President Joe Biden's recent words at the Green inaugural Ball: "Keep the faith."