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Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Obama: "We will respond to the threat of climate change..."

President Obama at his 2nd term inauguration as the 44th President of the United States has announced that tackling the issue of climate change will be a priority. In his 20 minute speech he devoted an entire section to the climate issue:

"We, the people, still believe that our obligations as Americans are not just to ourselves, but to all posterity. 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.

"The path towards sustainable energy sources will be long and sometimes difficult. But America cannot resist this transition; we must lead it. We cannot cede to other nations the technology that will power new jobs and new industries – we must claim its promise.

"That is how we will maintain our economic vitality and our national treasure – our forests and waterways; our croplands and snowcapped peaks. That is how we will preserve our planet, commanded to our care by God. That’s what will lend meaning to the creed our fathers once declared."

Related: Australian political responses to Obama's climate change Inauguration speech

The extent of his words were far more than were spoken in the last Presidential election campaign by both candidates - the climate silence in the campaign was astonishing.

His first hurdle will come in denying the approval to a permit for the Keystone XL pipeline to carry the thick tar sands oil from Western Canada. Tar Sands protests are growing in the north east.

In 2011 James Hansen described in a Reuters news report the Keystone pipeline as essentially Game Over for a stable climate if the pipeline goes ahead. See a discussion on Realclimate science blog.

"If the tar sands are thrown into the mix it is essentially game over," Hansen, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration climatologist, explained about reclaiming a stable climate. "The principal requirement is that coal emissions must be phased out by 2030 and unconventional fossil fuels, such as tar sands, must be left in the ground."

More recently, in an open letter this month 18 scientists, including James Hansen have written to President Obama urging him to show his "climate convictions" and reject the tar sands-carrying Keystone XL pipeline.

The next step is likely to be empowering the EPA to act on emissions under the Clean Air Act.

Legislative action is unlikely to be achieved given the toxic nature of congressional politics and the influence of the fossil fuel lobby in congressional politics.

After that, the world will want to see the USA taking a strong lead in international negotiations. Other developed countries like Australia, Japan and Europe and developing countries such as India and China will need to lift their level of ambition in reducing emissions intensity. Australia has stated since Copenhagen that it would ramp up emission reduction if equivalent action was taken by other countries. With a carbon tax in place leading into an emissions trading scheme linked to the European emissions scheme, the policy mechanisms are in place to meet that commitment.

One of the effects of US action in transitioning away from coal power will be the added impetus for other countries to follow the lead in leaving coal in the ground. Coal mining and development has suddenly increased it's commercial risk. The coal industry will fight for it's continuance, and there needs to be a strong grassroots campaign not only to shut down coal power stations and transitioning to renewable energy production, but also to phase out the coal export market in countries such as Australia and the United States. Already there is a campaign in the Pacific Northwest against coal exports, and campaigns in Australia to stop new coal mines from being developed.

Obama's inauguration speech offers some hope, but the challenge of rapidly reducing global emissions will not be easy given the 20 years of prevarication on taking substantive action.


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