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Climate change Obama can believe in

Michael McCarthy on the inaugural speech that could herald a new era in the fight against global warming
  • @mjpmccarthy

It ran to 2,094 words. But for many observers, Barack Obama’s second inaugural address was all about just two of them: climate change. The President’s decision to make  global warming a key theme of his speech has sparked new hope that the world may be able, at last, to mount a truly global response to one of its biggest threats.

The President sprung a surprise by devoting more words to the climate threat than to any other specific policy, signalling he would make it a personal mission of his second administration. He promised: “We will respond to the threat of climate change, knowing that the failure to do so would betray our children and future generations.”

He went on to take a swipe at the sceptics and highlighted the extreme weather events of the last year, including the drought and Hurricane Sandy, which, while not directly attributable to global warming, are consistent with predictions of what will happen in a world of rising temperatures – and which have turned many American minds back to the climate question.

The specifics of how he hopes to affect change in Washington are not yet clear. But aides suggested that he will outline some concrete steps in his State of the Union address early next month – and stressed that his zeal should not be doubted. “Energy and climate policy are going to be a top priority,” White House adviser Heather Zichal told guests at an environment ball in Washington on Monday. She added that the President’s goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 17 per cent by 2020 would be met.

While some important measures were taken in Mr Obama’s first term, including introducing tougher petrol mileage standards for new cars, there were disappointments, not least his failed attempt to push emissions-capping legislation through Congress.

A new poll released today revealed that Americans are still evenly divided on the question of man’s contribution to climate change and pushing Congress to pass any laws limiting emissions will be an uphill task. Mr Obama has some leeway to take action on his own, however, and a first step could be to order the Environmental Protection Agency to set a tough new carbon emissions ceiling for existing power stations in America.

But while change at home will be hard, it is in the international arena that his words will resonate the loudest. For President Obama may be able to provide the international leadership that will be essential if the world is to agree the comprehensive global treaty on cutting carbon emissions which is being negotiated between now and 2015.

This treaty, which was agreed in principle at the UN Climate Conference in Durban in 2011, is vital because it would for the first time impose legally binding restrictions on the world’s three biggest carbon emitters, China, the US and India, who between them emit 48 per cent of global CO2. None is covered by the current, limited climate treaty, the Kyoto Protocol. The world’s first attempt to construct a truly global treaty on cutting carbon broke down at the Copenhagen Climate Conference in 2009, because of disagreements between rich and poor countries about who should do what – although Mr Obama’s presence at the meeting helped prevent the negotiations collapsing completely.

The agreement to try again for a global deal, which is known as the “Durban Platform”, will be negotiated over the next three years, at UN climate conferences in Poland this year, Peru or Venezuela in 2014, and probably in France for the critical conference in 2015. President Obama’s explicit support for this process may make all the difference, not only for its moral force and international influence, but because bilateral understandings – hard-nosed deals within deals – will have to be reached in advance between the US, China and India.

Mr Obama is yet to meet his new Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping, who was appointed leader of the Communist Party in November and who will take over as President next month; but it is clear that any meaningful action to halt the march of climate change will come through Washington and Beijing.

Today, the UN Secretary-General, Ban Ki-Moon, flying out to the annual gathering of power-brokers at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, announced that tackling global warming was  one of his priorities for 2013.

“Strong US participation is absolutely essential for a strong agreement to be concluded,” said one of America’s leading commentators on climate change, Elliot Diringer, of the think-tank Centre for Climate and Energy Solutions.

Mr Diringer described the President’s inaugural address comments as “most welcome and encouraging.” He said: “These were the most expansive and forceful comments on the topic we have heard from President Obama. He made the connection between climate change and extreme weather, he made the economic case for stronger action, and he made the ethical case as well. Now we have to see if this will be a sustained message, and how readily the words will translate into action.”

Alden Meyer, of the Union of Concerned Scientists, said Mr Obama’s “clarion call to action” on climate change “leaves no doubt this will be a priority in his second term.”

After recent extreme weather events, there had been more political momentum than ever to address climate change, Mr Meyer said. “With presidential leadership, that shift will continue over the next four years, and meaningful progress on climate change will become an important part of Barack Obama’s legacy,” he said.

Green Obama: In his own words

"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 judgement 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. That’s 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."

Having a ball: The other side of the inauguration

Doubling up

The President took the oath of office with his left hand on a stack of two bibles: the Lincoln Bible, with which the 16th President performed the same ceremony in 1865; and Martin Luther King’s travelling bible, which the civil rights leader carried with him during his journeys through the South.

Let’s roll

Michelle Obama made her feelings towards Republican House Speaker John Boehner abundantly clear as the two sat beside one another at the inaugural luncheon. While Mr Boehner shared a joke with the President, Mrs Obama rolled her eyes and tucked into her steamed lobster.

Arm in arm with the armed forces

The Obamas and the Bidens both danced with members of the armed forces at the Commander-in-Chief inaugural ball at the Washington Convention Centre. The Vice President led Army Staff Sgt. Keesha Dentino across the floor as Dr Jill Biden took a turn with Navy Petty Officer Third Class Patrick Figueroa.

Return of the Wu

The First Lady’s fashion choices were subject to fevered speculation before the big day. Just as she had in 2009, Mrs Obama chose to wear a dress by designer Jason Wu to the inaugural ball. She also wore shoes by Jimmy Choo, and a handmade diamond ring by Kimberly McDonald.

Making history

Among the groups taking part in the inaugural parade was the Lesbian and Gay Band Association, an international organization of LGBT bands which made history in 2009 as the first ever LGBT group to participate in the inaugural parade. President Obama also made history with the first mention of gay rights in an inaugural address. “Our journey is not complete until our gay brothers and sisters are treated like anyone else under the law,” he said.

Star-spangled mimer

Beyoncé Knowles was the sole celebrity to upstage the Obamas at their own party. She arrived with her husband Jay-Z to give a soaring rendition of the national anthem, tearing out her earpiece midway through the performance, to the delight of the television audience. It later emerged, however, that the singer had been lip-syncing to a pre-recorded backing track.

Malia photobomb

Malia, 14, and Sasha Obama, 11, snapped pictures all day, often of each other. During the parade, Sasha persuaded her parents to kiss for a photo. The sisters then composed a self-portrait, for which Malia made a face.

Tim Walker