THE BLOG
11/18/2014 09:34 am ET Updated Jan 18, 2015

Believe It or Not, There Is Good News on Climate Change

Feng Li via Getty Images

Looking for a little hope on climate change? Believe it or not, it's here and it's real. And I'm not referring to the fact that, at least temporarily, oil prices have gone through the floor, making environmentally destructive "tough oil" projects like western oil-shale fracking and Canadian tar sands extraction look ever less profitable. Nor do I mean the climate change deal that was just reached at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit and is being called "historic." It's true that President Obama made a positive move at that summit, another symbolic gesture in its wake, and is promising more of the same in the future. These steps to check the worst future depredations of climate change have been hailed as perhaps more transformational than they are. Nonetheless, in the face of a new Republican Congress in which anti-climate-change hawks may outnumber war hawks (no small feat), this is well worth noting.

I'm talking, of course, about the potentially carbon-reducing long-term deal between the planet's two major greenhouse gas polluters, between, that is, Barack Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping. Both of them have been running "all of the above," drill-baby-drill -- or in China's case dig-baby-dig and import-baby-import -- energy programs to devastating effect. China, for instance, is slated to bring online the equivalent of a new coal-powered plant every 10 days for the next decade, even as it's taken a leading position in developing solar power technology.

The steps agreed to in somewhat hazy language by the two presidents fall far short of what will be needed to keep this planet from overheating drastically, and yet they do at least pave the way for the first global climate change negotiations that might actually matter in a long while. The genuinely good news, however, was none of the above. It has to do instead with the thinking behind Obama's Beijing decision. The "architect" of the American negotiating position, months in the making, was presidential senior adviser John Podesta. And here's what you need to know about him: He's reportedly going to leave the Obama administration early in 2015 to run Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign. This means that he's essentially committed the leading Democratic candidate in 2016 to run her campaign on Obama's gesture in China and whatever other climate change moves he plans to make in the coming year -- on, that is, reducing carbon emissions.

As Coral Davenport of the New York Times explained recently, the thinking behind this is clear. Despite the historically low-turnout 2014 midterm elections, Podesta -- and the Democrats -- are making a different kind of bet on 2016 based on polling figures showing that, among key presidential election year Democratic demographics (young voters, Hispanics, African Americans, and unmarried women), concern over climate change is rising in striking ways. In other words, if you can tune out an election in which an aging 19 percent of the prospective electorate swept a whole crew of climate deniers into office and focus on deeper, longer-term calculations, something is happening, possibly generationally, that's potentially big enough to change future elections.

It's big enough, at least, to catch the attention of pragmatic political types in Washington, and may be the beginning of a tectonic transformation in this country. Despite the power of Big Energy and the present hue and cry about "job destruction," a "war on coal," and all the rest, a rising climate movement could potentially transform our politics and our world. No one who attended the enormous climate change rally in New York in late September could doubt that this was so, but that John Podesta has also been paying attention matters. It tells us in a nitty-gritty way that sometimes the work of activists does pay off.

All those years in the (overheating) wilderness organizing and proselytizing, all those years when the mainstream media managed to look the other way, all those years when climate change activists in groups like 350.org had to struggle to avoid despair, may turn out to matter. That's the positive side of the picture. Then there's the other side, and it couldn't be grimmer, as TomDispatch's energy and climate-change expert Michael Klare makes clear in his latest piece, "Fossil-Fueled Republicanism."