The race to become leader of the world's most powerful democracy often seemed disconnected from reality. During debates, the two main candidates stooped to insults, half-truths and outright lies. The overall campaign included appallingly ignorant statements about women.
But the most bewildering disconnect was over the greatest threat the world faces: global warming. Republican candidate Mitt Romney only mentioned it mockingly, and President Barack Obama brought it up in passing toward the end of the campaign and in one line during his acceptance speech.
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We should probably be happy that the candidate who at least acknowledged the seriousness of climate change won. Obama has had more to say since being elected to his second term. "I am a firm believer that climate change is real, that it is impacted by human behaviour and carbon emissions, and as a consequence I think we have an obligation to future generations to do something about it," he told reporters at a post-election news conference.
He went on to list his accomplishments on climate during his first term: better fuel efficiency standards for cars and trucks, increased clean-energy production and investment in "breakthrough technologies that could further remove carbon from our atmosphere." But those were inadequate, given the scope of the problem
He should have done more. As investment strategist Jeremy Grantham recently wrote in Nature, "President Barack Obama missed the chance of a lifetime to get a climate bill passed, and his great environmental and energy scientists John Holdren and Steven Chu went missing in action."
Part of the problem is the increasingly dysfunctional nature of a polarized and paralyzed U.S. political system — including a Congress dominated by anti-environmental, anti-tax and often anti-government Republicans. Many of us — not just Americans — hope the president will show stronger leadership this time around. Unfortunately, his news conference statement sent mixed messages. Although he acknowledged that more should be done and promised to have "a wide-ranging conversation with scientists, engineers and elected officials" about reducing carbon, he also said "if the message somehow is that we're going to ignore jobs and growth simply to address climate change, I don't think anyone's going to go for that. I won't go for that."
He went on to acknowledge the costs of climate-related natural disasters and mentioned the danger of climate change as "something we're passing on to future generations that's going to be very expensive and very painful to deal with."
In trying to say the right thing without alienating the fossil fuel industry and other moneyed interests, he came across as confused. Even though it will be expensive and painful not to act, he's not prepared to take the necessary steps if it will impede jobs and growth. But climate change is already costing the U.S., and the rest of the world — in money, human health and lives. The increasing frequency of extreme weather events, droughts and floods is in line with what climate scientists have been predicting for decades — and evidence is mounting that what's happening is more severe than predicted, and will get far worse still if we fail to act.
Because our leaders — in Canada and the U.S. - have too long listened to fossil fuel interests and their denier minions rather than scientists, it will be more difficult than it might have been to reduce carbon emissions to the extent necessary to prevent runaway global warming (if it's not too late already), and it may require more sacrifice than it would have had we acted sooner. But there are many ways to protect the health of the planet and the future of humanity without destroying economies.
Conserving energy and thus saving money, reducing consumption of unnecessary products and packaging and shifting to a clean-energy economy would likely hurt the bottom line of polluting industries, but would undoubtedly have positive effects for most of us. Many scientists and economists also say putting a price on carbon through carbon taxes and/or cap-and-trade is necessary. Rethinking the economy as a means and not an end in itself would also help.
If America wants to retain its position as a global power, its president must listen to the people and show strong leadership at this turning point in human history.