Obama needs to make reducing greenhouse emissions a second term priority


Superstorm Sandy capped a year of bad weather in the United States. Droughts in the Midwest that dried up fields from Iowa to Texas. Heat waves along the Atlantic Seaboard and points inland last summer. An oddball winter that left typically snowy states in the Upper Midwest practically snowless while other areas were repeatedly blanketed with the white stuff.

These unseasonal and dramatic events have wrought all kinds of havoc, but they have also had one positive effect: growing awareness that we are all beginning to feel the effects of a warming climate. Nothing made that more clear than Sandy, which slammed into New York and New Jersey on Oct. 29. Power is still out in some places, the Eastern Seaboard in the two worst-hit states is littered with mile after mile of wrecked homes and businesses, whole coastal neighborhoods have become uninhabitable. With an estimated damage price tag of $90 billion, Sandy is shaping up to be the second-most costly hurricane after Katrina.

All the conflicting weather phenomena will surely be discussed during the United Nations’ latest round of international climate talks, which convened Monday in Doha, Qatar. While global warming appeared to be a tacitly verboten subject during the just-concluded U.S. presidential campaign, President Obama raised the issue, finally, during his victory speech, calling for a “national conversation” on climate change.

Really, the time to talk is long gone. Just ask the people in New York and New Jersey. They are still picking among their ruined homes. Or the farmers in Nebraska who saw their crops wither last summer under an unforgiving sun. Or Floridians, many of whom are struggling to pay ever-rising windstorm insurance rates to cover even the most modest of homes.

Most observers believe that the officials meeting in Qatar will not reach the consensus necessary to take admittedly tough steps to slow rising global temperatures that are melting Arctic Sea ice and permafrost, shifting rainfall patterns that cause droughts and rising sea levels that contribute to stronger hurricanes. For example, no insider expects the United States to improve upon its voluntary pledge to reduce green-house emissions by 17 percent by 2020.

What can be expected from the talks, say climate experts, is an attempt to extend the Kyoto protocols, an international emissions-reduction agreement that will otherwise expire this year, and to increase climate financing for poor countries. That’s pretty lame in the face of increasing real-time proof that man-made greenhouse gases and other heat-trapping emissions are wreaking havoc.

The United States, with the highest rate of automobile emissions, a major greenhouse gas, has to take the lead. With a second term assured, President Obama needs to make tackling climate change among his top priorities, right up there with growing jobs and reducing the deficit. If he does, future generations of Americans will hail his second term as the moment when this nation finally pulled its head out of the sand on global warming.

In 2010, the Obama administration ended the 30-year fight between the auto industry and government to raise fuel efficiency standards for automobiles and light trucks, which should cut greenhouse emissions by 30 percent. The president’s other big push, a bill that would have capped U.S. greenhouse emissions, got stalled in the Senate. Obama must get that bill back on the table. Send photos of Sandy’s devastation and withered corn stalks in Iowa to every lawmaker.

The other hope for the U.N. talks is the genesis of a new global emissions-reduction agreement that would take effect in 2015. U.S. leadership is the key to making that happen.

The truth is we all need to be more engaged in the stark realities of climate change, which will affect the national economy over time just as much as will the huge federal budget debt.

No individual, no region, is immune from its effects, be it searing heat or severe flooding. Wise are those who look at the aftermaths of Sandy and know that next year it could be our turn again.