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Barack Obama and the world’s climate drama

“We will respond to the threat of climate change, knowing that the failure to do so would betray our children and future generations. Some may still deny the overwhelming judgment of science, but none can avoid the devastating impact of raging fires and crippling drought and more powerful storms. ...

“America cannot resist this transition (to sustainable energy sources), we must lead it. ... That’s how we will maintain our economic vitality and our national treasure – our forests and waterways, our crop lands and snow-capped peaks. That is how we will preserve our planet, commanded to our care by God.”

– Barack Obama, second presidential inaugural address

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Will Obama take the lead on climate change? Or will he kick that can down the road for the next president to deal with?

Those were the questions tormenting the environmental community during the months between the president’s November re-election and his January inaugural address. I say “tormenting” because most environmentalists and climate scientists know just how much is at stake in the next four years.

They know that if our present rate of carbon emissions continues for a decade, or possibly less, we will be locked into passing the thresholds that, by international agreement, we must stay below to avoid dangerous climate change. They also know that global warming is beginning to trigger natural feedback mechanisms that can release the vast quantities of carbon stored in the planet’s forests, peat bogs and permafrost into the atmosphere. Once those processes are under way, rapid global warming will feed on itself, and no matter what we do about our own carbon emissions, it will be almost impossible to stop.

Environmentalists know that time is running out, if it hasn’t already done so. The next few years are literally our last chance to address climate change – or suffer its worst consequences.

But you would never know that by tuning into the mainstream American media, White House press conferences or last year’s presidential campaign. That’s because for the last three years, what should have been a vibrant “national conversation about climate change” had instead become what Sen. John Kerry called a “conspiracy of silence” about the topic. As the threat of climate change advanced, the leaders of public discourse retreated into irrelevance.

So for the months after Obama’s re-election, the environmental community tensely waited for a sign that the needed national conversation would at least begin in his second term. It’s fair to say that the majority of environmentalists suppressed all but the faintest glimmers of optimism as the president sent noncommittal and even mixed messages about the topic. His continuing support for his “all of the above” energy policy, which gives equal weight to the development of fossil-fuel resources and renewable energy, is hardly reassuring to climate-action advocates.

But rather than just waiting anxiously for new disappointments, the prominent environmental organization Natural Resources Defense Council, along with 70 other environmental groups, published an open letter to the president on Jan. 7, urging him to do three things: First, “Raise your voice. Elevate the issue of climate disruption and climate solutions in the public discourse” (thus assuring that the media will follow suit). Second, use his executive authority under the Clean Air Act to cut carbon pollution, mostly from coal-fired power plants. Third, stop the construction of the Keystone oil pipeline.

Part of the president’s response came in his inaugural address, quoted in part above. But do his words mean that he will follow through on addressing climate change by using his bully pulpit and all the powers of his office?

Many environmentalists are skeptical. They’ve heard a lot of talk about climate change from Washington but have seen little constructive action.

My own take is that he means what he says. He would not have made climate change a central theme of his inaugural address – and promised to air specific proposals in his coming State of the Union address Tuesday – if he intended to evade the topic.

However, he has yet to commit himself to specific actions, and it would be easy enough for him to, say, green light the Keystone pipeline and still claim that he is taking other actions that adequately address climate change. Politics is tricky, and politicians can fool themselves as well as fooling others. The physics of climate change, on the other hand, are as non-negotiable as they are unforgiving. Once Obama and the public truly understand that, appropriate policy will follow.

That’s where you come in. If you believe that climate change is a threat and want to know what you can do about it, take the opportunity offered by this moment. Join the growing national conversation on climate change, speak out to your friends and neighbors, and help build a critical mass of awareness at our ecological house.

Philip S. Wenz lives in Corvallis, Ore., where he teaches and writes about environmental issues. Reach him by email through his website, www.your-ecological-house.com.