A full grasp of the implications of global warming eludes much of the world but it seems to be a particular problem in the United States. A recent survey from Yale revealed that almost a quarter of the US population thinks global warming doesn’t exist. Surveys regularly place tackling climate change near the bottom of voter priorities.
Into this inhospitable climate, President Obama yesterday launched a 1,300-page report on the effect that rising temperatures have already begun to have on the American landscape. Summers are getting longer, and winters shorter. Droughts, rainfall and wild-fires are increasing in duration and ferocity. The message to the American sceptic is clear: you may not yet have seen it, but climate change presents a serious threat in the here-and-now, and we need to something about it.
In 2008, Obama claimed – with messianic self-assurance – that his election marked “the moment the rise of the oceans began to slow”. Over the next four years, however, little was done to keep the waters down: a proposed cap on total C02 emissions did not make it through the Republican-dominated Senate, and after that – at least until Hurricane Sandy made land – the White House went quiet on matters environmental. The discovery of vast quantities of shale gas rather sat on the subject of renewables.
Yet, free from the need to seek re-election, some of the President’s environmental fervour appears to be returning. With little foreseeable support in Congress, he has turned instead to the regulatory powers of the Environmental Protection Agency. The coal industry, already hit by what amounts to a ban on the construction of new coal-based plants, is raising a stink about the upcoming proposal of a limit on emissions from existing power plants.
All this points in the right direction, as does Obama’s willingness to raise the subject of climate change with other world leaders, particularly in China. But the scale of the task exceeds piecemeal regulation. The US offers $4bn of tax incentives a year for producers of fossil fuels; these must, eventually, be scotched. And to achieve the necessary “great reduction” in heat-trapping gasses, a cap on emissions, or carbon tax, will surely be required. The electorate may take time to realise it. But, as this dramatic report makes clear, there is not very much of that left.