Gwynne Dyer

Gwynne Dyer is a commentator on international affairs based in London

Gwynne Dyer: Gale-force wind of change shoves climate on to Obama's agenda

President Barack Obama. Photo / AP
President Barack Obama. Photo / AP

It's hard to know how much impact New York mayor Michael Bloomberg's comments about climate change after Hurricane Sandy had on the US election. It's easy to overestimate that sort of thing, but President Barack Obama's victory in several states was so razor-thin that Bloomberg's last-minute intervention may have been decisive. What's clear is Obama didn't want to talk about it during the campaign.

Bloomberg, responding to the devastation he saw in New York City, laid it on the line. "Our climate is changing. And while the increase in extreme weather we have experienced in New York City and around the world may or may not have been the result of it, the risk that it may be ... should be enough to compel all elected leaders to take immediate action."

So did Obama pick up the ball and run with it? Certainly not. Apart from a one-liner about how climate change "threatens the future of our children" in a single speech, he remained stubbornly silent.

Rightly or wrongly, Obama and his team have been convinced for the past four years that talking about climate change is political suicide.

Nor did he actually do all that much: higher fuel-efficiency standards for vehicles was his only major initiative.

So was all the instant speculation about how Superstorm Sandy might finally awaken Americans to the dangers of climate change just wishful thinking? Not necessarily.

Obama faces a daunting array of problems as he begins his second term: avoiding the"fiscal cliff", restraining Israel from attacking Iran, tackling the huge budget deficit, and getting US troops out of Afghanistan. But the biggest problem facing every country is climate change, and he knows it. Otherwise, he would never have appointed a man like John Holdren to be his chief scientific adviser.

Holdren, a former president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, is one of the leading proponents of action on climate change.

He is also savvy enough politically to understand why Obama couldn't do much about it during his first term, and he didn't flounce out in a rage when the President avoided that fight.

Obama rarely starts fights he cannot win, and it was clear from the day he took office in 2009 that he couldn't get any climate-related legislation through Congress.

That's why his fuel-efficiency initiative was his only first-term accomplishment on this front: that did not require legislation and was done as a regulatory initiative by the Environmental Protection Agency. To what extent has his re-election changed this equation?

Second-term US Presidents, who no longer have to worry about re-election, often act more boldly than in their first term.

The US economy is clearly in recovery mode, and Obama will (quite justly) get the credit for that. That will give him more leeway to act on other issues, and the environmental disasters of the past year may finally be pushing the American public to admit climate change is real.

It has long been argued that what is needed to penetrate the American public's resistance to the bad news of climate change is a major climate-related disaster that hurts people in the United States.

Even if Sandy was not the direct consequence of global warming, it fills that bill.

There is no guarantee of that, and each year the risk grows that the average global temperature will eventually rise by over 2C (3.6F) and topple into uncontrollable, runaway warming. Moreover, the Republicans still control the lower house of Congress. But hope springs eternal, and at last there is some.

Journalist Gwynne Dyer's articles are published in 45 countries.

- NZ Herald

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