A colossus stirs from its slumber

Obama’s Washington speech signals a shift with global implications. [2 July 2013 | Peter Boyer]

Barak Obama peels off his jacket to talk about global warming at Georgetown University. PHOTO USA TODAY

The cacophony around Kevin Rudd’s rise from the ashes last week muffled news of an event at a US university campus a few hours earlier which deserves a lot more attention.

In the four-and-a-half years of his presidency Barak Obama hasn’t said a lot about global warming. It got a mention in his 2008 election campaign, but he seemed to lose interest a year later when the Senate shelved legislation for an emissions trading scheme.

Obama studiously avoided mentioning climate in his re-election bid last year — until a week out from the poll. That was when, just after midnight on October 30, Hurricane Sandy made its presence felt in lower Manhattan.

Sandy’s devastating storm surge delivered a huge shock to the epicentre of US capital. Apart from the near-$70 billion damage bill, there was the unnerving thought, expressed by New York mayor Michael Bloomberg, that this might be a sign of things to come.

The huge clean-up effort was just getting under way when Obama signalled a policy shift, using his election victory speech to invoke “the destructive power of a warming planet” as cause for climate action.

In last January’s State of the Union address he urged Congress to pursue “a bipartisan, market-based solution to climate change” while flagging his intention to use executive powers — needing no Congressional approval — to pursue measures to cut US carbon emissions.

Last week, under a blistering midsummer sun, Obama fronted students and staff of Washington’s Georgetown University. Pausing frequently to mop his brow, he took nearly an hour to lay out in detail his plan “to lead the world in a coordinated assault on a changing climate”.

Decades of careful science, he said, had shown that burning fossil fuels was causing atmospheric carbon levels to rise dramatically, changing the planet “in ways that will have profound impacts on all of humankind”.

“The 12 warmest years in recorded history have all come in the last 15 years. Last year, temperatures in some areas of the ocean reached record highs, and ice in the Arctic shrank to its smallest size on record — faster than most models had predicted it would. These are facts.”

New York Harbour’s sea level was 30 cm higher than a century ago, Obama said, contributing to Sandy’s destruction “that left large parts of our mightiest city dark and under water”.

This was no time for quibbling: “I don’t have much patience for anyone who denies that this challenge is real. We don’t have time for a meeting of the Flat Earth Society. Sticking your head in the sand might make you feel safer, but it’s not going to protect you from the coming storm.”

The question, said Obama, “is not whether we need to act. The overwhelming judgment of science has put all that to rest. The question now is whether we will have the courage to act before it’s too late. How we answer will have a profound impact on the world that we leave behind not just to you, but to your children and to your grandchildren. As a President, as a father, and as an American, I’m here to say we need to act.”

Rhetorical flourishes aside, Obama’s long list of initiatives included doubling the national 2020 renewable electricity target and almost trebling the government’s use of renewable energy by that year.

He announced new Environmental Protection Agency standards to cut carbon pollution from new power plants this year and existing power plants in 2014, and an end to US financing of overseas coal plants except those using cleanest technology.

Tax subsidies for coal, oil and gas are to be ended and stringent fuel economy standards will be introduced in 2018 for heavy vehicles, and a four-year “Energy Review and Climate Data Initiative” will gather and publish data on climate and energy.

Obama said he would seek to put the US in a leading position in multilateral efforts to reduce emissions, and would be pursuing an “ambitious” UN climate change treaty by 2015.

There’s much food for thought in Obama’s speech, not all of it positive. His measures won’t go all the way to achieving an already-inadequate 2020 emissions target of 17 per cent below 2005 levels (though it has to be said it’s better than our own paltry 5 per cent below 2000).

Obama proudly pointed to his country’s rising oil production and the new hope presented by natural gas, but didn’t point out that they’re both fossil fuels which will add to carbon pollution.

He said that Keystone, a controversial proposal to pipe Canadian tar-sands oil to Gulf refineries, would only go ahead “if this project does not significantly exacerbate the problem of carbon pollution” — but a preliminary State Department appraisal suggests that approval is in the bag.

Obama hinted that more would come, foreshadowing an agreement for joint action with China and restating his personal support for “a bipartisan, market-based solution” — emissions trading. But he can’t do that without Congress, which goes into lockdown whenever climate is mentioned.

Like all national climate action plans, this one falls short. But the US is more than its national government. As Obama himself said, many states are instigating carbon pricing schemes and targets for energy efficiency and renewable energy, and over 1,000 mayors have agreed to cut carbon pollution.

It’s also a country of private initiative, whose enterprise and innovation remain at the leading edge and whose climate solutions are still up there with the best, even when government is indifferent or hostile as was the case under George W. Bush.

“It’s time for Washington to catch up with the rest of the country,” said Obama. With the US president seriously on side, many things become possible.

• Australia’s biggest annual student environment congress, the five-day “Students of Sustainability” gathering, begins in Launceston on Friday. More information: www.studentsofsustainability.org

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