In his State of the Union address, President Obama restated his inaugural commitment to respond to the threat of climate change, calling on Congress to pursue a "bipartisan, market-based solution." If Congress doesn't act, he vowed to take "executive actions" instead.
Whichever path the president decides to pursue, legislation or regulation, bipartisanship will be critical. Even if every Democrat in Congress today were to vote in unison (a rarity for energy-related issues), the president would still need support from at least 18 Republicans in the House and five Republicans in the Senate to pass a new climate policy. And new carbon regulations under the Clean Air Act would also be subject to congressional review, suggesting that they, too, would benefit from bipartisan support.
However, the need for bipartisanship doesn't mean that the president's second-term climate goals are destined to fail. The politics of climate are beginning to change. Following Hurricane Sandy, a poll by Zogby Analytics found that 69 percent of Americans, including half of Republicans, are "worried about the growing cost and risks of extreme weather disasters fueled by climate change" -- findings consistent with other recent polls by Rasmussen Reports, National Journal and Siena Research Institute. Pollster John Zogby commented on the shift, saying, "It's a major change from our 2009 poll, which showed two-thirds of Republicans saying they were 'not at all concerned' about global climate change."
But changes in national polls alone have not been enough to change the minds of Members of Congress, who are more concerned with the opinions of their constituents. For that to begin to change, Americans in their districts need to hear more about the threat and opportunity presented by climate change, from non-partisan leaders who genuinely share their interests.
This process is also underway. Leaders representing faith, health, agriculture, academia, armed services, industry, sports and other sectors have begun to engage their members on what a changing climate means for them. At Climate Week NYC 2012 -- an annual leadership summit hosted by The Climate Group in partnership with New York City -- leaders from the World Evangelical Association, World Medical Association, National Farmers Union, and major businesses from Swiss Re to Philips gathered together to discuss how to advance an American "clean revolution," a swift, massive scale up of clean energy that could generate up to $3 trillion in additional GDP by 2050, if the right investments are made today.
Ending climate partisanship will not be easy. But the foundation for a more honest, less divisive conversation has been set by leaders outside of Washington, and by climate disruptions already being experienced throughout the country.
After making a strong commitment in his State of the Union address, it is now up to President Obama to build on this progress by engaging more Americans, especially conservatives, in his effort to respond to the threat of climate change from the very start.