Although much has already been written about the second inauguration of President Obama, I would like to briefly view it through the narrowly focused lens of climate change. I was among the sea of humanity who gathered in Washington on January 21 to witness the event. My day started in the early morning, leaving my home in York, PA at 3:00 a.m. By 7:30 a.m. I was firmly planted in a VIP standing area with a good, though distant, view of the flag-bedecked inaugural platform. Dawn was barely breaking.
Eventually, the sun rose over our nation's Capitol Dome. Although somewhat masked by gray clouds, the hazy, stellar object reminded me that our sun is the source of our planetary warmth. Solar energy drives our climate system. Photosynthesis converts carbon dioxide back into stored chemical energy. Our fossil fuels are little more than vast stored reserves of solar energy from previous eras.
If it were not for the natural greenhouse effect in which atmospheric carbon dioxide traps solar energy, Earth would be a cold, lifeless sphere like all other planets in our solar system. It is the enhanced greenhouse effect resulting from too much carbon dioxide being dumped into our atmosphere that is the cause for alarm.
In his 2013 inaugural address, Obama vowed to confront excess greenhouse gas emissions which are our planet's most pressing environmental issue. Indeed, Obama has consistently voiced his concern about climate change and stated the need for our nation to tackle the issue. What struck me was the power and conviction of his 2013 inaugural statements.
"We, the people, still believe that our obligations as Americans are not just to ourselves, but to all posterity. We will respond to the threat of climate change, knowing that the failure to do so would betray our children and future generations."
As stated, we have a moral and ethical responsibility to provide a habitable world for our children, grandchildren, and all as yet unborn generations. Climate change is a civilization challenging issue that mandates active U.S. engagement with our entire global community. It requires a commitment to lower our own greenhouse gas emissions and to provide financial and technical resources to those most vulnerable and least resilient in adapting to our changing climate.
"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 overwhelming consensus of climate scientists, prestigious scientific societies, and the refereed scientific literature confirm that our planet is warming and humans are the primary cause. The past 12 months took us to the figurative woodshed for a series of severe-weather lashings. 2012 was the warmest on record -- an unprecedented 1.0 F warmer than the previous record warm year of 1998 and 3.2 F above the 20th century average. Hurricane Sandy brutally whipped our coastal communities with severe economic consequences. Crops throughout much of the nation withered under a drought not seen since the dust bowl.
The contrasts between this and Obama's previous inauguration are telling, both real and metaphorically.
Back at the inaugural event in 2009, an arctic front had spilled down over the eastern half of the U.S. spreading freezing temperatures as far south as Atlanta. This year's event was balmy by comparison. The festive mood in 2009 was one of jubilation, fully recognizing the historic moment. This year was more reserved, but clearly one of reverence for its shared connection with Martin Luther King Day and the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation.
In 2009, I encountered inaccessible trains crowded beyond capacity. The city was not prepared for a crush of nearly two million visitors. I walked four miles across the frozen Potomac River to our appointed point of entry in DC. This year, I easily negotiated the well planned and managed transportation maze.
In 2009, I waited for hours in a glacial-pace line, slowed by limited and inefficient security portals, only to have the gates close as the ceremony began. Along with thousands of other VIP ticket holders, I was locked out of the ceremony. This year, entry was non-stressful. Even though the number of VIP ticket holders and therefore the ticketed crowded remained the same as in 2009, we were efficiently funneled into one of multiple security alley ways and through a security portal.
In like manner, Obama's action based Inaugural Address this year, one of resolve, contrasted starkly with his "winter of our hardship" speech in January 2009 when his words reflected the challenges of a nation in crisis, "Our nation is at war... Our economy is badly weakened... Homes have been lost, jobs shed, businesses shuttered. Our health care is too costly, our schools fail too many." Although he stated that, "each day brings further evidence that the ways we use energy strengthen our adversaries and threaten our planet," the term "climate change" did not appear in his speech.
Obama more clearly articulated his climate change vision in December 2009 when he traveled to the UN climate conference in Copenhagen for what turned out to be the largest gathering of world leaders ever outside the UN in NY. He joined a chorus of other world leaders in stating:
... Climate change poses a grave and growing danger to our people... This is not fiction, it is science. Unchecked, climate change will pose unacceptable risks to our security, our economies, and our planet. This much we know... America bears our responsibility to address climate change, and we intend to meet that responsibility... We are ready to get this done today." Armed with newly acquired authority under the EPA to regulate greenhouse gas emissions as well as consensus from across the aisle, he was ready to "get this done."
However, a more polarized legislative body meant climate change legislation never got done. Now, three years later, an experienced president, unencumbered with the need to seek reelection, appears prepared to as stated in his 2013 Inaugural Address, "preserve our planet, commanded to our care by God."