Can Obama's climate momentum survive?

by Haseeb Md. Irfanullah | Practical Action - Bangladesh
Friday, 21 November 2014 13:07 GMT

U.S. President Barack Obama arrives to announce executive actions on U.S. immigration policy at the White House in Washington, on November 20, 2014. REUTERS/Jim Bourg

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Partisan interests are strong, but climate impacts may be stronger

In his recent trips to two continents, President Barak Obama has taken climate change discussions to a whole new height. In Beijing, USA reached a historic deal with China to cut emissions; while in Brisbane, the President promised US$ 3 billion for poor countries to fight climate change.

This evolving positive image of America gained significant momentum in Obama’s second term in the office. The Climate Action Plan, the Executive Orders on domestic and international strategies on climate-resilient development; and the draft Clean Power Plan rules, for example, are simply milestones.

But, will this momentum continue after 2016 presidential election in America?

During my recent visit to the USA, I asked this question to 24 Americans working in the field of climate change. They were working in universities & research institutions (6), not-for-profit organizations (7), and local, state & federal governments & their agencies (11).

Although I travelled Washington DC, Maryland, Louisiana, Indiana and California − with varied climate, vulnerabilities, economies and life styles − I identify three main groups from their replies.

Fifteen professionals believed the momentum (let us call it ‘Obama Momentum’) would continue beyond 2016, no matter who come to the White House. They were ‘optimists’ for several reasons. People had been experiencing increased frequency of big disasters and notable changes in natural systems and livelihoods. It was also not possible to ignore climate science anymore.

Climate change has direct business interests difficult to overlook. Energy market drives carbon emissions and disasters drive insurance industry, for example. Climate change mitigation has co-benefits too, like, air-quality improvement and energy access.

Young Americans believe in climate change and are in favour of taking actions to mitigate its impacts − another reason to be hopeful.

Three respondents, however, were not sure if the current momentum will continue. These ‘pessimists’ expected climate change will remain a partisan issue in America in the years to come.

I call the third group of six the ‘realists’. They believed the current climate momentum would depend on who becomes the President.

To some, who controls the Congress is also important. We are yet to see if the predicted tensions between President Obama and Republican-controlled Congress take place over climate change after recent midterm elections.

The Republicans would definitely have their own way of doing climate change things − in the Congress and in the White House. If America gets a Republican President in 2016, a Fellow from a think-tank expected a possible pause for a year to get the climate momentum back.

News analysts see Obama putting climate change on the top of his agenda in his final two years. He is trying to give America the much needed moral edge on sealing a post-2015 climate change deal in the coming year.

Climate change may or may not be an issue in 2016 presidential campaign. But the Americans should take advantage of the current climate momentum and make climate change a non-partisan issue for them.

Haseeb Md. Irfanullah leads the disaster risk reduction and climate change programme of Practical Action in Bangladesh. He can be reached at