“All three of us are in agreement that the time for delay is over, the time for denial is over.  We all believe what the scientists have been telling us for years now, that this is a matter of urgency and of national security, and it has to be dealt with in a serious way.  That is what I intend my administration to do.”  This declaration by President-elect Obama to reporters following a Dec. 9 meeting alongside VP-elect Biden with Nobel prize-winner Al Gore will need to be defended in terms beyond energy independence to include potentially devastating climate disruption impacts. 

Post by Anne Polansky

The president-elect went on to reaffirm his commitment to step up programs and policies to transition away from fossil fuels toward clean energy:

“We have the opportunity now to create jobs all across this country, to re-power America, to redesign how we use energy, to think about how we are increasing efficiency, to make our economy stronger, make us more safe, reduce our dependence on foreign oil, and make us competitive for decades to come, even as we are saving the planet.”

But, given the host of competing problems—a deep economic recession, the urgent need for health care reform, geopolitical instabilities in the Middle East and elsewhere, soaring federal debt, and so on—selling the electorate on a set of fundamental changes in the way we consume and produce energy in the short run—and congressional appropriators on making the large investments needed to bring these changes about in the long run —will be a tough task, even for Barack Obama and his newly appointed team of highly competent advisers, and a Congress that has given every indication that it will take up and give priority to climate legislation.

Without a thorough accounting of what is in store for us under a set of climate conditions foreign to anything humans have ever experienced, the political motivation and public support for taking the steps needed to both prepare for a wide-ranging and highly disruptive set of impacts and convert to a low-carbon economy is likely to dissipate.  At the level of effort needed to rise to the challenge, it seems to us likely that the support just won’t be there—unless people are very clear about why the changes are needed and about the consequences of inaction.

Dr. Stephen Chu was quoted while attending a renewable energy conference in Nevada this past summer, remarking on the potential consequences of global climatic disruption:

“Climate change of that scale will cause enormous resource wars, over water, arable land, and massive population displacements…We’re not talking about 10,000 people. We’re not talking about 10 million people, we’re talking about hundreds of millions to billions of people being flooded out, permanently.”  (audio recording in .mp3)

As Secretary of Energy, Dr. Chu will have a $3-4 billion budget to bring to bear on a set of energy technology and policy problems that are central to our success, or failure.  In this statement, he articulates the scale and gravity of climate disruption, and brings the problem from the general and the global to the particular and the local.  We will need more of the same—factually and scientifically based assessments of existing and projected impacts on water and food supplies, ecological systems, coastal areas, public health, and so on. 

And, our next top science adviser to the president,  Dr. John Holden, has captured the sense of urgency this way (.pdf):

Global climate change is increasingly recognized as both the most dangerous and the most intractable of all of energy’s environmental impacts—indeed, the most dangerous and intractable of all of civilization’s environmental impacts, period.

It is the most dangerous because climate is the “envelope”within which all other environmental conditions and processes operate. That envelope is not just a matter of global-average surface temperature (to which the misleadingly innocuous term “global warming” applies) but of averages and extremes of hot and cold, wet and dry, snowpack and snowmelt, wind and storm tracks, and ocean currents and upwellings; and not just the magnitude and geographic distribution of all of these, but also the timing. Distortions of this envelope of the magnitude that are underway and in prospect are likely to so badly disrupt the environmental conditions and processes influenced by climate as to adversely affect every dimension of human well-being that is tied to the environment…

Global climate change is the most intractable of environmental problems because the dominant driver of the disruption—emission of carbon dioxide (CO2) from fossil-fuel combustion—is a deeply embedded consequence of the way in which civilization is today acquiring 80 percent of its energy.

The public needs to hear the President himself articulating a perspective on the potential consequences of climate change. Getting across the risks of inaction and ill-preparedness, in terms of physical, economic, and geopolitical consequences and in ways people will understand is a requisite first step to dealing with climate change “in a serious way.”