Obama’s win brings hope for a rational approach to climate change

If you were listening closely at 8:16 p.m. (EST) on election night, you might have heard a subtle but persistent sound blowing across the country. That was the sound of liberals and progressives exhaling in a collective sigh of relief. We’ve been here before. After all, will we ever forget 2008? Looking back, it seems beyond imagining that Americans might have elected Republican John McCain. McCain was a candidate with such disregard for the seriousness of the office he was running for that he gambled on a vice-presidential nominee so unqualified and devoid of intellectual heft as to be a national joke. Then, as now, the wisdom of the American electorate prevailed, averting a diminishment of our highest offices.

This time around the stakes were even higher. Romney and Ryan offered economic and social policies so focused on destruction of the social contract that even Catholic bishops descended from their tower to denounce them. Thankfully, those policy prescriptions were resoundingly rejected. We prevailed in the end against undemocratic headwinds so narrowly focused on benefiting a sliver of the electorate that, had the election results turned out differently, we’d be looking at an almost unrecognizable future.

Of course, pre-election angst makes post-election victory even sweeter. Our majority wasn’t snowed by big money and their deceptive advertising blitz. Together we obliterated the blabbering of political punditry. Acting on an innate sense of fairness and integrity, the majority voted decisively to bar the doors of the White House to a Faustian character so flawed and ethically compromised that no one, not even his own campaign surrogates, knew what the candidate believed nor the shape of his next deceit.

As for the winner: In his victory speech we saw an invigorated President Obama opening the door more than a crack, allowing us a glimpse of what we might expect for his second term. Republicans and right-wing media may be in denial mode but Obama’s clearly earned his political capital—his mandate. No matter what it’s called Obama’s got a bag of it right now. And he’s acting like a winner who knows what he’s got and how he’d like to use it.

Moderates and progressives take heart. One of the looming taboos of the campaign (as well as of the last two, dysfunctional years) slipped through that crack. What blew through were words the victor finally dared speak. What a relief to hear the president acknowledge the reality of climate change and remind us that the destructive force of Sandy should no longer allow us to pretend away the inconvenient truth. As Obama instructed, we ignore “the destructive power of a warming planet” at our own peril.

How tragic that the president’s acknowledgment of climate change should be judged as an act of political courage. That in itself demonstrates how timid our politics have become and how deeply compromised by corporate interests are the halls of government. For those of us who believe policy should be directed by facts, figures, math, expert collaboration, scientific inquiry (nay, even rational thought!), we find ourselves poised on the edge of our chairs waiting to see if Obama’s second term will see the president use his mandate and take on the climate deniers. We can only hope at this point that real policy initiatives will follow.

The task will not be easy. Failure to swing the majority in the House means that at least for the next two years the party of dumb will hold the reigns and continue to skew the agenda. Continued Republican dominance means that the keys to the House Science Committee will remain in the hands of science deniers backed by anti-science, pro-corporate think tanks like the Heartland Institute and the Competitive Enterprise Institute.

Vying for chairmanship of the House Science Committee are three climate-denying buffoons, Representatives Lamar Smith, Jim Sensenbrenner, and Dana Rohrabacher. Together, they have debased any shred of intelligence they share by dismissing “scientific fascism,” labeling climate-change research “an international conspiracy,” and attacking the three major television networks for their “biased” coverage of global warming.

Even with such challenges looming in the House, one science-oriented organization sees Obama’s win as a source of hope. The Union of Concerned Scientists has never given up on providing peer-reviewed data to elected officials to help them defend science-based policy making (even throughout the science-challenged Bush administration). The president’s nod to the reality of climate change sent the concerned scientists into activist mode. They’re challenging the rest of us to join them by signing a letter to the president outlining a rational course on climate change for the next four years. Here is an excerpt:

Dear President Obama,

I am counting on you to lead our country forward using science and facts and to make climate change a priority for your administration by taking the following steps:

1. Order all relevant agencies to assess which areas of the country are most vulnerable to climate disruption–including extreme weather, flooding, drought, heat waves, and wildfires—and then, working with state and local authorities, address those vulnerabilities.

2. Follow up on your strong leadership that sharply increased the fuel efficiency of our cars and trucks by launching a comprehensive plan to cut projected U.S. oil use in half within 20 years.

3. Finish the job you started to reduce power plant pollution by requiring both new and existing power plants to cut their carbon emissions.

4. Start a national conversation on climate change with all Americans, beginning by convening leaders of the science, business, security, faith, and environmental communities at a White House Summit on Climate Resilience to discuss ways to keep our citizens healthy and safe.

As you set our nation’s course for the next four years, I urge you to stand up for science, address the realities of global warming, and further expand efforts to move a clean energy economy forward in the United States.