Obama confronts “the global threat of our time”


    After four months of silence, President Obama signaled yesterday that he really, really, really does intend to take imminent executive action to combat man-made climate change. Really, really.

    In his Berlin speech, he said that in the absence of action, we face “more severe storms, more famine and floods, new waves of refugees, coastlines that vanish, oceans that rise. This is the global threat of our time. We have to get to work.”

    And across the pond in Washington yesterday, White House climate change adviser Heather Zichal told a public forum that Obama will soon order the Environmental Protection Agency to develop rules that will require utility companies to curb carbon dioxide emissions at their exisiting power plants. Forty percent of our annual climate-altering emissions come from these plants. In Zichal’s words, the president “is serious about making (climate change) a second-term priority. He knows this is a legacy issue.”

    Well, it’s about time – because Obama has said very little about the issue since February, when he declared in his State of the Union address that “for the sake of our children and our future, we must do more to combat climate change….I will direct my Cabinet to come up with executive actions we can take, now and in the future…”

    Ah yes, Congress – or, more specifically, the Republican House, which remains infested with science-averse deniers. That crowd is incapable of cognitive enlightenment on climate change, so Obama has no choice but to take executive action, as promised. Naturally his enemies won’t like it, they’ll call him a dictator or a king (Sen. Charless Grassley, last year: “The president looks more and more like a king”), but the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2007 that the EPA, as directed by the chief executive, has the power to regulate pollutants without any OK from Congress.

    “Anything but settled”

    Executive actions aren’t ideal – they can always be nixed by the next president – but they’re better than nothing. Doing nothing is a win for the science deniers – people like Chris Stewart, a Utah Republican (and 2012 recipient of $40,000 in donations from oil and gas interests) who earlier this year was given a prize job, the chairmanship of the House Subcommittee on the Environment. His take on the issue: “I’m not as convinced as a lot of people are that man-made climate change is the threat they think it is….The science regarding climate change is anything but settled.”

    There he is, folks, your House chairman on the environment.

    Apparently he hasn’t gotten the memo from the National Climate Assessment and Developmental Advisory Committee, a body that’s mandated by Congress to report on the climate every four years. In its new report (which has been vetted by 240 scientists, it warns: “Climate change is already affecting human health, infrastructure, water resources, agriculture, energy, the natural environment and other factors – locally, nationally, internationally….The climate change of the past 50 years is due primarily to human activities.”

    Nor does he or his fellow House Republicans seem to place much confidence in the scientific consenus (comprised of roughly 97 percent of the expert community), which includes the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the American Chemical Society, the American Geophysical Union, the American Meteorological Society, the American Medical Association, the U.S. National Academy of Sciences (and its counterparts in Britain, China, Germany, and Japan)…presumably you get the drift, even if the deniers don’t.

    According to the nonpartisan Pew poll, 65 percent of Americans say that climate change is “very” or “somewhat” serious, and that sentiment has been consistent since 2009. If Obama intends to substantively address that concern, he has to unleash the EPA now – for logistical reasons alone, because the EPA regulatory process takes several years, and its proposed emission rules are destined to challenged (i.e., tied up) in federal court by the usual suspects.

    Hottest year on record

    What other evidence could sane people possibly need? Back in January, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reported that 2012 was the hottest year on record in the continental U.S. (records began in 1895). Nationwide, 356 high-temperature records were tied or broken. And lest we forget, climate disruption isn’t about all kinds of extremes, not just heat. In 2012, we saw 3,500 new monthly records for heat, rain, and snow.

    Candidate Obama, in 2008, did not campaign as an enthusiast for unilateral executive action; back then, he said of George W. Bush: “We’ve paid a heavy price for having a president whose priority is expanding his own power.” Granted, an emissions directive to the EPA is well within a president’s power (as the high court decreed in ’07), but Obama clearly had hoped to work on this urgent issue in sync with Congress.

    Well, that ain’t happening. In his State of the Union speech, he vowed: “If Congress won’t act soon to protect future generations, I will.” And, finally, he’s ready to give it a try.


    Follow me on Twitter, @dickpolman1


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