THE BLOG
03/08/2013 09:18 am ET Updated May 08, 2013

Obama 2.0: Time to Make a Mad Dash

It's been nearly a month since Barack Obama promised to wield his executive authority in order to rein in that "dangerous carbon pollution that is threatening our planet."

In fact, since his reelection last November, the U.S. president has made a vocal commitment to the cause in all three of his major speeches, including last month's stirring State of the Union address.

This has stoked big hopes both at home and abroad that he will not only fight climate change during his final term, but make it part of his overriding legacy as the 44th leader of the United States. But, after all of that bold rhetoric, there has been little sign of action thus far.

In fact, if the latest report from his administration on the Keystone pipeline is anything to go by, perhaps the next four years will do little to slow the rise of our oceans. Although the paper stops short of endorsing the pipeline, it does say that transporting oil from Canada's tar sands poses little risk to our climate.

The paper has drawn widespread criticism from both the environmental and scientific community, many of whom protested outside the White House last month in what was billed as the largest climate change rally in American history.

Oil from the Canadian tar sands is the dirtiest of all the fossil fuels. It releases far more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere than conventional sources of oil because it requires enormous amounts of energy to both extract and transport. It also produces a filthy byproduct called petroleum coke which generates more carbon dioxide than even coal.

In fact, if we were to use all of that oil, it would warm our planet by a further 0.4 degrees celsius: "To say that the tar sands have little climate impact is an absurdity," says James Hansen, NASA's top climate scientist.

Global warming has become a poignant issue in the U.S. ever since Superstorm Sandy took center stage in last year's election as it swept across the northeastern seaboard to leave much of New York City submerged under water. It came during the hottest year on record, following a summer of raging wildfires, intense heat waves and the worst drought in half a century.

And, although such weather is frightening, it is the byproduct of a mere 0.8 degrees Celsius temperature rise. According to the World Bank however, things are about to get much hotter. It says that temperatures may rise by as much as four degrees Celsius within the next 50 years. That means that our children's children will be growing up in a sweltering world marked by violent conflicts over food and water.

And, although there is a growing belief that technology will somehow save us, one of the UN's lead scientists Professor Peter Cox, likens adaptation to wearing a safety helmet whilst running down a corridor at full speed in the dark. And, unbeknown to the runner, there are a string of invisible staircases that plunge downwards.

In fact, the World Bank warns that "adaptation" to such a climate may not even be possible: "A 4 degrees Celsius world can, and must, be avoided." According to the International Energy Agency, time is running out. But, we still have a three-year window in which we can act. After that, the climate will spiral out of control, and our chance of fixing it, will be irrevocably lost.

Looking at the Keystone pipeline from this perspective, one is able to appreciate how it has come to represent such an emotive symbol in the fight against climate change. Many see it as a litmus test for the president's true commitment to the environment: "If Obama "cannot say "no" to Keystone -- the dirtiest of the dirty -- can he say no to anything? This decision will cement Obama's climate legacy," says John Abraham from the school of engineering at the University of St Thomas.

Moreover, if recent noises from a White House energy adviser are accurate, Obama has no plans to assert his executive authority for at least two years. With skirmishes around the "fiscal cliff" expected to continue, the president may be hoping that the recent debacle over the $85 billion sequester will enable his party to win back Congress during the mid term elections.

If successful, that would give him the green light to pursue everything from gun control to reining in climate change. "In American football terms, Obama is playing for the fourth quarter," writes Edward Luce in the Financial Times.

But, it's a risky strategy, for the Republicans have their own game plan. By stalling the president's second term agenda, they hope that public dissatisfaction will sway in their favor so that they can regain control of the Senate. And, they have history on their side as the president's party tends to lose the midterms, even when the economy is strong.

Given the current gridlock in Washington, perhaps Obama should capitalize on his recent reelection and drive through as much change as he can over the near future, for as William Shakespeare once said: "There is a tide in the affairs of men, which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune."

If Obama continues to stall, he will not only waste time, but may renounce even more power heading into the final quarter of his presidency. Waiting, in this instance, is a dangerous game. And, one which our planet no longer has any patience for. As the Chinese philosopher Sun Tzu once said: "Opportunities multiply as they are seized." With only two quarters left to play, it's time to make a mad dash for the goal line.