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After the Cliff, Another Mountain to Climb: The Twin Peaks of Climate Change and Energy

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If we can get past the enormous fiscal cliff and the related budgetary challenges that this country faces, there are a lot of other important mountains President Obama has to climb in his second term, among them the twin peaks of climate change and energy.

Mr. Obama came to office four years ago saying that climate change was one of humanity's biggest challenges. Within days of his election in 2008, he convened the Governors' Global Climate Summit. Some 600 people from all over the country -- governors, business leaders, scientists and advocates -- met for two days to discuss the issue and help shape the new president's agenda. Obama told the group that Washington had failed to lead. "That will change when I take office," he declared.

It didn't. Instead, the economy continued its free fall, and politics spiked. Efforts at cap-and-trade legislation failed. The United Nations Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen ended in disappointment. In his 2011 State of the Union address, the president didn't even utter the words "climate change." In his 2012 address he said Washington's political differences were "too deep" to pass a comprehensive plan to fight the problem.

Though Washington's leadership vacuum hasn't changed much in the past four years, plenty about climate and energy has. Climate scientists say that the planet is warming faster than earlier computer models had predicted. Arctic sea ice and glaciers around the world are melting at alarming rates. The first 10 months of 2012 were the warmest on record. We are confronted with a fact that takes your breath away: No one under the age of 28 has ever experienced a month where average global temperatures were below historic norms. According to the National Climactic Data Center, the last colder-than-average month was back in 1985.

On the energy front things have changed, too. America has hit pay dirt with shale oil and gas. These emerging energy sources are producing new jobs and bringing manufacturing back to America. And natural gas has about half the carbon emissions of coal. There needs to be transparency and a regulatory structure to protect aquifers and nearby communities, but fracking and drilling are fueling an energy boom.

The picture for renewable energy has also brightened. Solar prices are down, and output is up. While solar energy is still just a fraction of the energy America uses, the Energy Information Agency projects that consumption of solar power will have grown by 31 percent in 2012 and will grow by 28 percent in 2013.

We're also smarter in the ways we use energy. Cars are smaller and more efficient. Cars that achieve 30, even 40, miles to the gallon is not uncommon now, and low gas mileage is a major selling point for automobile manufacturers. Efficiency in the construction industry is also a point of pride. A few years ago a massive retrofit of the Empire State Building cut energy usage in that iconic structure by nearly 40 percent. With projected savings topping $4 million a year, that investment had a payback of less than three and a half years. It's worked. Energy costs are down, and occupancy is up. This brand of efficiency isn't just about altruism or environmentalism; it's about smart business and effective marketing.

So the time is right for President Obama to make a second term play for a substantive climate and energy policy. But first he has to make the case for the difficult debate to happen, because these are still issues that polarize. Here are five things that the president can do to restart the energy and climate conversation:

  1. Focus on the future: This can be a fundamentally optimistic, even inspirational, conversation. We are innovators. While we are not going to fix all the problems by inventions alone; generating excitement and engaging our competitive juices around innovation is the right way to lead. It's how we made it to the Moon.
  2. Make it about jobs: The energy sector employs millions. New technologies engage inventors and entrepreneurs and then, yes, create jobs. Some will fail. Some will soar. But reliable, affordable energy supplies are essential if businesses are to invest and hire.
  3. Connect it to our security: At home, at work and around the world, we will be safer if there is a policy that puts the pieces together and looks ahead 10, 20, even 50 years. We need both climate realism and dependable energy if we are to deal with a warming planet where people can be healthy and prosperous.
  4. Bring it home: This should be personal. Every person breathes air, drinks water, uses energy and bears some responsibility for the environment. Local communities can save money and be more resilient when confronting natural disasters and extreme weather.
  5. Explain the science: Climate change is interesting if we use the right language. Put it in plain English. Cite experiences and trends and stories from around the world to bring it to life and convey the stakes.

As President Obama prepares to take the oath for a second term, he has an opportunity to reframe the conversation around climate change and energy. It's the right time to climb up this next mountain. And the view is always better from the top.

This blog post is part of a series produced by The Huffington Post and the George Washington University that closely examines the most pressing challenges facing President Obama in his second term. To read the companion article by HuffPost's Tom Zeller, Jr., click here. To read the companion blog post by Carter Roberts of the World Wildlife Fund, click here. To read all the other posts in the series, click here.