Is the U.S. finally going to move on the climate crisis?

When a situation is as desperate as the climate crisis and yet, year after year, no leadership emerges, it is hard to believe that the situation may be changing. Like Charlie Brown running up to Lucy and a waiting football, one learns to expect disappointment. It is hard to put credence in the rhetoric of those in power.

In Canada, things are so bad that we don’t even have hypocritical lip service to the crisis. We have silence.

However, over the last month, in a series of statements by some of the most powerful people on Earth, the threat of the climate crisis seems to be on the agenda as never before.

On January 21, President Barack Obama made the issue a key portion of his second inauguration address. He made reference to superstorm Sandy, the heat waves and record-breaking extreme weather events, and said:

‘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…

‘We cannot cede to other nations the technology that will power new jobs and new industries, we must claim its promise.’

Just days later, at the World Economic Summit in Davos, Switzerland, the managing director of the International Monetary Fund, Christine Lagarde, delivered a stunning speech. (The International Monetary Fund has done nothing but worsen environmental protections anywhere in the world in which it has delivered a prescription.) Mme Lagarde, having outlined the major threats to global economic stability, stated that climate was a larger threat. Describing it as ‘the greatest economic challenge of the 21st century,’ she said: ‘Increasing vulnerability from resource scarcity and climate change, with the potential for major social and economic disruption; this is the real wild card in the pack.’

In response to a question from the audience, she said: ‘Unless we take action on climate change, future generations will be roasted, toasted, fried and grilled.’ That would have be a strong statement from the head of Greenpeace; from the head of the International Monetary Fund, it is jaw-dropping.

Again, within days, the new president of the World Bank, Jim Yong Kim, wrote an opinion piece for the January 28 Washington Post, urging urgent climate action. ‘After the hottest year on record in the United States—a year in which Hurricane Sandy caused billions of dollars in damage, record droughts scorched farmland in the Midwest and our organization reported that the planet could become more than 7 degrees warmer—what are we waiting for? We need to get serious fast. The planet, our home, can’t wait.’

Add to this mix a very tough letter of resignation from US Energy Secretary Steven Chu, lambasting those who undermined his efforts to promote renewable energy and parting shots from outgoing Secretary of State Hilary Clinton, and it is hard not to see that a full court press from the Bretton Woods Institutions has lined up behind the US president to demand climate action.

The White House will still face climate deniers and obstructionists and grid-lock in Congress. Recently, some states are considering legislation to mandate that school children be taught anti-science on the climate threat. We are, by no means, assured of action, and if we were, could it be tough enough? It would have to be comprehensive and commit to deep cuts in greenhouse gases to make a real difference. But with the appointment of John Kerry as the new Secretary of State, at least it has renewed hope that the XL Pipeline will be turned down. I will be in Washington before publication of this article to urge that the US Administration reject the pipeline and move to real climate action.

We are running out of time for action. It always seemed that Barack Obama understood the threat. For his first term, he did very little, but he did manage to ensure that the economic stimulus package was focused on green technology. When he spoke of the economic potential of clean technology and green energy in his inauguration address, he was also speaking to a reality he knows well.

For Canada, the potential of clean tech is also substantial. According to a recent report from the Pembina Institute, Canada is falling behind the rest of the world in this key sector. The report estimates that Canada has the potential to build a $60-billion clean tech sector by 2020. We need to alert Canadians to the potential for our economy of acting to reduce greenhouse gases as forcefully as we warn that failure to act could condemn us to an unliveable world.

A series of speeches calling for climate action from unlikely sources is no guarantee of action. Nevertheless, it is significant and suggests that something new is afoot.