The global climate system may have received a stay of execution with President Obama's reelection to a second term and hope for meaningful action to avert climate catastrophe remains alive. While the silence on the climate crisis during the U.S. presidential campaign was truly deafening, Obama was quick to include the subject in his acceptance speech on election night. High expectations during his first term led to frustration and hand wringing around the world as the Obama administration continued to court carbon industries while tossing the occasional minor regulatory improvement to environmental concerns along the way. With the 18th UNFCCC Conference of the Parties (COP 18) entering the crucial final week of negotiations in Doha, Qatar, President Obama once again has the opportunity to lead the world's international community of nations on a sustainable path to a safe and sustainable future. And if the warnings from the world's leading climate scientists are correct, as they have increasingly been proven to be, there is little time left to prevent critical irreversible tipping points from being breached if indeed they have not been already.
During their first year in office, both President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton attended the UNFCCC COP15 conference in Copenhagen in 2009. There was an international push prior to COP15 by virtually every environmental organization and activists around the world attempting to create a large enough political space for significant action on the myriad factors contributing to anthropogenic climate change. The general consensus was that the time had come and the science had sufficiently established the danger and certainty of catastrophic climate change if business were allowed to follow current trajectories, better known as "business as usual." It was thought that the U.S. under the Obama administration would finally lead the way to a fair, ambitious, and binding climate treaty to cap and then begin reducing global greenhouse gas emissions. The results were disappointing at best with the resulting agreement lacking in substance and teeth. The best thing that could be said of the COP15 was that the world's most threatened developing countries were empowered to stand together and refused to sign on for what the president of the Maldives, Mohamed Nasheed, described as "collective suicide." These nations are among the first to be threatened by climate change and rising sea levels; they were resolute in not agreeing to half-measures far short of what would be required to ensure temperature rise below 2 degrees (3.6 F) this century, a number that many scientists now consider too high for preventing catastrophic climate change. (Never mind that we are currently on a trajectory for a 4 to 6 degree rise this century). If it was not clear following COP15, it most definitely became so in the following years as the U.S. has effectively blocked any progress toward an international treaty on climate, assisted by the EU, Russia, Japan, India and China. The U.S. Congress and the Republican controlled House of Representatives, where the carbon industries and their cronies led by the infamous Koch Brothers and Sen. James Inhofe hold the majority, has been seen as sure to block any treaty the Obama administration might commit the U.S. to and thus a continuing excuse for inaction.
But that was then. In the past year extreme weather events like superstorm Sandy, which devastated the Eastern Coast of the U.S., have continued to increase in frequency and intensity along with record heat, flooding, fires and drought. Worst-case scenarios of the most sophisticated climate models are proving inadequate in predicting the speed and intensity of climate change. Despite exponentially increasing lobbying and propaganda efforts by those promoting a business as usual approach to a warming climate, the majority of Americans now not only accept the scientific reality of a warming planet, but consider it a threat to their personal safety and well being. This sea-shift in public opinion presents the first real chance for policy makers to reduce global carbon emissions and prevent the worst effects of catastrophic climate change with broad based global public support.
With a second term in office President Obama now has the opportunity to take historic action that will serve to place him among those few world leaders whose bold vision and decisive action on controversial issues of paramount importance elevates them above the usual political cacophony to the realm of timeless statesman. It is surely no coincidence that Steven Spielberg's portrait of Abraham Lincoln was released the same week as Obama's reelection. Both men as president of the United States were elected to office at critical defining times in the history of not only western but human civilization. In Lincoln, the issue of human slavery and a divided nation found its champion. The path he chose through the middle of a bloody civil war, was not the easy out, but indeed the way to a world permanently changed for the better. Now in the 21st century, President Obama is at a crossroads where once again an American president has the opportunity to take decisive action on an issue of global importance -- climate change -- and ensure a more just, safe, and prosperous world for this and all future generations.