US climate change initiative: President Barack Obama's legacy will be written in history

Obama and Pope Francis are among the few individuals with enough power to directly influence humanity's impact on climate change. It will be interesting to see how US conservatives react to them both

Politicians seeking enduring legacies have to be lucky with their timing. I believe history will show Barack Obama has.

As he ratchets up the emissions reductions in the US power sector to new heights today, seeking to lead the world on climate action, he faces a barrage of Republican and energy incumbency denialist bluster, and no doubt legal action from states. But consider the march of events that favour his mission.

Read more: Obama reveals climate change initiative

First, forgetting climate change for the moment, Silicon Valley and its equivalents around the world have clearly decided how the future looks, and it is manifestly clean and green. Apple and Google have both invested more than $1bn in renewables. Tesla took $800m of indicative orders within a week of announcing its new battery products. Investment banks are saying the fossil fuel game is up, and the first two major energy firms (E.ON, GdF Suez) agree, announcing U-turns in their business model.

Second, consider the economics on the fossil fuel frontiers. Shell is doggedly drilling in the Arctic at a break-even cost far above the price it could sell oil at today. Shale drillers have clocked up a mountain of junk debt and are beginning to go bankrupt. As for coal, giants a few years ago are penny stocks today. Chinese air quality efforts are doing much of that.

Third, look at the regulators. The Bank of England has an internal investigation under way as to whether the routine operations of fossil-fuel firms are imperilling the financial system. The G20 governments have agreed to mirror the investigation.

Fourth and finally, let us consider climate change itself. All across the world the divestment movement grows: cities, universities, pension funds, doctors, churches and others are pulling investments out of fossil fuels, citing the risk of stranded assets, or ethics, or both. Financial institutions remaining invested are putting fossil-fuel firms under intense pressure on the capital expenditures they need to keep carbon-fuel dependency on track.

Then there are perhaps the US President’s two biggest allies: Beijing and Rome. The Chinese government fears climate change enough to co-operate bilaterally on multiple fronts with the US. Pope Francis in his recent encyclical has as good as told Catholics to worry about their souls if they maintain course with carbon profligacy. It will be interesting to see how the US religious right deals with that, especially with an election in the offing. One in four Americans is Catholic.

Jeremy Leggett is founder  of Solarcentury and author  of “The Winning of the  Carbon War”

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