Posted by: Matthew Hoffmann | November 7, 2012

Fortunately President Obama Does Not Have to Start From Scratch on Climate Change Policy

Those interested in a progressive response to climate change went beyond breathing sighs of relief last night with news of President Obama’s re-election.  The twitterverse revealed notes of optimism and enthusiasm that had been buried as this community endured the long slog of a campaign that mostly ignored climate change. Activists and those concerned about climate change were buoyed by President Obama finally invoking climate change in his victory address:

We want our children to live in an America…that isn’t threatened by the destructive power of a warming planet.

Of course, thoughts are quickly turning to the question that Andrew Revkin is already perceptively asking in his blog today—what is next for US climate and energy policy and how can Obama move forward? The political equation at the national level for climate policy in the US has not changed significantly.  Obama still faces a skeptical and Republican House of Representatives and a robust coalition of economic and political interests that is willing and able to fight against progressive action on climate change (a coalition that defeated a climate friendly ballot initiative in Michigan relatively easily). Yet even so, there is a sense today that Obama’s re-election combined with the wake up call of Hurricane Sandy opens up possibilities for action on climate change.

I find that the case for optimism is actually quite strong, not because the national political situation has changed significantly, but because President Obama does not have to start from scratch on climate change and can thus have a relatively large impact with relatively modest action.  In the last decade local, state, regional, and global initiatives working on different aspects of climate change have emerged and proliferated in the face of stalemate and inactivity in the UN negotiations and in US federal climate policy. These initiatives (what I have called climate governance experiments) have been working to develop the technological, institutional, economic, and political capacity to move quickly on climate change.  Organizations like The Climate Group are bringing together local governments and corporations to do large scale pilot projects of climate friendly technology.  Initiatives like the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative brings together Northeastern US states in an emissions trading system that is demonstrating how a price can be put on carbon.  Networks of municipalities like the C40 group of large cities and the Cities for Climate Protection are demonstrating how local, municipal action on climate change can have an effect beyond the borders of individual cities.

Given developments like these and many other similar initiatives, one possible way forward for President Obama on climate policy is to channel what Revkin dubbed Obama’s options for “administrative moves” and “vast untested potential” for “basic leadership” not into a fight for broad national policies (at least not right away), but rather into support for the diverse ways that numerous and varied political and economic communities are already responding to climate change.  This could have two significant ramifications.  First, these non-traditional climate responses amongst local communities, cities, states, NGOs, and corporations have the potential for real, on the ground impacts on climate mitigation and adaptation. They are changing the ways that multiple communities produce and use energy, design transportation, communicate, work, and adapt to our already changing climate. Second, these initiatives can serve as the foundation for building political and economic coalitions dedicated to and clamoring for broader and deeper action at the national and international levels. As they grow in number, size, and impact, they can catalyze new political pathways to progressive climate action.

Leadership in climate policy is not just about fighting for a national legislation or for a grand global deal (although both of those are obviously important goals).  It is also about supporting, enhancing, and scaling up innovative efforts that are already underway.  If this kind of action is part of the Obama plan for climate change, then the optimism and enthusiasm that is cautiously emerging today may well be warranted.


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