What does the reelection of Barack Obama mean for climate change? On the one hand, it is a tremendous relief that Mitt Romney lost; but on the other, Obama’s victory is not particularly promising.
Firstly, it is unlikely that Obama will be able to accomplish much even if he wants to. The Republicans will continue to control the House of Representatives, as well as continuing to effectively control the Senate, which means they can continue to block everything as they’ve been doing for the past three years. Why do they effectively control the Senate, you may ask? As explained here, an idiosyncratic rule called the filibuster allows any Senator to prevent a bill being passed (or even being introduced) by debating the motion indefinitely (or secretly threatening to do so). To overrule a filibuster requires 60 out of 100 votes, which the Democrats have not had since 2009 and still don’t have after this election. The Republicans now filibuster pretty much anything and everything, making it almost impossible for the Obama administration to pass legislation. Even if the Democrats had 60 seats, many Democratic Senators representing coal states are unlikely to vote in favor of legislation to address climate change.
It is far from clear that Obama would take the necessary level of action on climate change even if he could get it through Congress. Obama’s first term will be remembered for the failure to act on climate change. The policies he has tried to implement so far have been utterly inadequate. In UN climate talks, Obama has secured a too-high 2°C target and promoted a system of voluntary pledges utterly inadequate to meet it with no intention of ramping them up until at least 2020, when it will be too late (although I say “Obama”, the president himself no longer bothers to show up to climate conferences in person). To his credit, he has invested heavily in renewable energy deployment, but his “all of the above” energy policy also continues to promote and even subsidize fossil fuels. His failed climate legislation, negotiated between Congress and industry lobbyists, was plagued by similar problems to Australia’s policy – weak targets, offsets, free permits for polluters, etcetera – so even if it had passed it was unlikely to be very effective. He delayed that legislation in favor of healthcare reform and financial regulation, after which the Democrats lost the required Senate supermajority. And since March 2009, he has followed a deliberate strategy of not even talking about climate change, instead trying (and failing) to sell climate policies on side-benefits like “green jobs”.
Obama has promised to regulate greenhouse gas emissions through the Environmental Protection Agency if reelected, but those regulations have already been delayed for years. The regulations may prevent new coal-fired electricity generation in the US, but that would merely cement a trend already underway. Coal power plants in the US are already closing thanks to grassroots environmental campaigning, but they are being replaced with gas-fired plants while the US coal industry is ramping up its coal exports.
All things considered, Obama’s policies have proven to be little better than those of George W. Bush. His attempts to compromise have resulted only in moving the political centre toward the resolutely unmovable Republicans. Meanwhile, the Republican Party has moved far to the right (at least strategically), and even further away from reality. I won’t mince words: the Republicans are insane, or pretending to be insane, not just on climate but across all policy areas – and that’s an understatement. They have constructed their own alternate reality, with its own media. Their attitude is perhaps best illustrated by Romney’s declaration that “we’re not going to let our campaign be dictated by fact checkers”. The relevant points for this blog are that they openly deny the science of climate change; they seek to abolish all climate policies, renewable energy subsidies, and environmental regulation; and their energy policy is encapsulated by the slogan “drill, baby, drill”. Their descent into madness has been enabled by political commentators who, trapped in a misguided paradigm of balance, insist on treating the Republicans’ positions as if they were sane, while ignoring the views of minor parties. In any case, the two-party system meant Obama and Romney were the only two viable candidates.
I am convinced the ultimate reason for bad policy from both Republicans and Democrats – as with governments around the world – is the corrupting influence of money in politics. Instead of democratic government by the people, for the people, the US has undemocratic government by the corporations, for the corporations. Political donations have reached astronomical amounts. The Republican Party in particular receives an unimaginable quantity of political donations from the fossil fuel industry, but the Democratic Party is contaminated by corporate influence too. Business lobbyists have privileged access to the political system, and are using it to stop or sabotage climate policies. The two-party system means they only need to influence two organizations to all but control the entire country.
Despite all the above, a relatively sane but deadlocked president is not as bad as an insane president. Although the Republicans should still be able to prevent Obama from implementing much of his program, Romney’s defeat means they will not be able to implement their own. And with no need to campaign for re-election, Obama now has no excuse not to actively attempt and promote climate action.
People power is urgently needed to counter corporate power. American citizens must demand that the government and Congress take radical action on climate change, take steps to reduce the influence of money in politics, and get rid of the freaking filibuster!