Climate change was thrust to the forefront of the US political agenda recently in the wake of the devastation caused by Hurricane Sandy and record high temperatures across the country.
However, despite US President Barack Obama renewing his early promises to act, experts said that political opposition would make doing so at least as difficult as during Obama’s first, failed push to get new legislation through US Congress, and said decisive measures remain unlikely.
“All the public opinion polls show a better understanding of the link between climate change and extreme weather events,” said Alden Meyer, strategy director of the Union of Concerned Scientists.
However, he added that “there is still a lot to do in the Republican Party and in the business community” to get them on board with Obama’s plans.
Growing public concern over global warming was laid out in a recent study by the Rasmussen Institute, carried out shortly before the presidential election in November last year, but after Sandy slammed into the US’ northeast.
The study showed that 68 percent of US voters believed that climate change was a serious problem, compared with just 46 percent in 2009.
Since being re-elected, Obama has addressed climate change several times, pledging to launch a nationwide conversation to find common ground because “we’ve got an obligation to future generations to do something about it.”
Obama acknowledged that his stance on climate change would require “tough political choices.”
The makeup of Congress remains largely the same as before the November vote. Republicans have retained the majority in the US House of Representatives and a significant bloc come from the ultra-conservative Tea Party, while in the US Senate, Democrats strengthened their majority.
Elliot Diringer of the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions think tank said that growing public awareness of climate change “has yet to translate into a surge in political willingness.”
In 2010, amid an economic crisis, the Democrat-controlled Senate rejected the creation of a national market of greenhouse gas emissions — a so-called cap-and-trade system — that would penalize coal and oil users in favor of those using renewable energy.
Obama’s most effective weapon lies in the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which he could use to regulate greenhouse gas emissions — in particular carbon dioxide from coal power plants.
These power plants are responsible for one-third of emissions in the US, the world’s second-biggest polluter after China and the top polluter per capita.
The EPA has proposed stricter limits for new power plants, but has not acted on existing plants.
Meyer said it might be less impossible for Obama to pass a carbon tax after next year, with a new Congress and in the two final years of his mandate.
The tax, which could be framed as a way to cut the US’ deficit — a priority for both parties — is popular among economists and several Republicans.