WASHINGTON — Just before he and other environmentalists marched to the White House on Tuesday, climate change activist James Hansen warned he wouldn’t be able to be arrested with them this time. Hansen, a NASA scientist by day and an activist on his own time, had to be available for a press conference in the afternoon announcing that worldwide temperatures in 2012 were in the top 10 hottest ever recorded.
“I’d be honored to be arrested with you,” Hansen said. A few hours later, he declined to discuss politics on a conference call with reporters, but he outlined how he and other government scientists arrived at their calculations as well as their concerns about future warming trends.
But as President Barack Obama approaches his second term, some of the country’s largest and most influential environmental groups and best-known advocates have drawn up blueprints for the White House to address climate change and its attendant problems: rising sea levels, droughts, more severe storms and acidic oceans. Despite doubts from others about how much could be accomplished in the coming years, they’re calling for the president to crack down on big polluters with tougher emissions rules, to reject the Keystone XL pipeline from Canada’s tar sands, and to stick to higher new fuel efficiency standards for cars. Other groups want the White House to encourage energy innovations that would curtail emissions.
And some, like the religious leaders who rallied Tuesday on Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday, said there’s nothing left to do but pray. Among their prayers: that Obama would hear their pleas and have the courage to emerge as a leader on climate change.
Washington, ruled by special interests, has had little political will to grapple with the complexities of climate change, although an increasing number of political leaders have warned of dire consequences in the coming years. Many communities already are seeing the effects of climate change, most notably in coastal areas where sea levels are rising and storms are more severe – even as the United States is experiencing a job boom with natural gas drilling and as lawmakers debate how to balance environmental protection with employment in traditional industries such as coal mining. In the coming years, many cities and states will have to address the consequences of global warming – even if political leaders aren’t able to enact federal laws that reduce the carbon emissions that contribute to a warmer planet.
Americans are listening, said the Rev. Robert Coleman, a pastor at New York City’s Riverside Church who opposes mountaintop mining in West Virginia. Obama should listen, too, he said.
“We listen as the sea levels rise, we listen as the mountains disappear,” he said. “We are called to prayer. We are listening.”
The activists marched from New York Avenue Presbyterian Church, a church where King sermonized in 1968, and where President Abraham Lincoln attended services during the Civil War.
Carrying a beach ball-sized Earth, Hansen led the interfaith protesters the two blocks from the church to the White House. Others carried banners saying “God calls to us all: Heal the Earth.” The march along wet streets was silent but for a small troupe of Buddhist drummers.
"We have a dream that our president will understand the intergenerational injustice of human-made climate change,” Hansen said when they arrived. “That he will recognize our duty to be caretakers of creation, of the land, of the life on our planet. And that he will give these matters the priority that our young people deserve."
Obama’s first term disappointed many environmentalists, who had hoped he would live up to his 2008 campaign promises to address global warming. Although the administration has imposed new mileage standards and tightened emissions rules, it also has expanded drilling on public lands and failed at legislation that would have capped carbon emissions.
Now, with Obama poised to begin his second term Sunday, climate change must compete with politically charged issues such as gun control, immigration and the debt ceiling.
And yet, advocates are hopeful that Obama can spur what they say would be meaningful changes. If that happens, it would be a major part of Obama’s legacy, said Michael Brune, executive director of the Sierra Club, which this week announced its own plan of action and upcoming march.
Some say the environmental movement has sometimes been its own worst enemy when it comes to getting anything done.
The movement may have unreasonable expectations as the country emerges from a recession and must tackle serious questions about spending, said Frank Maisano, an energy lobbyist with Bracewell & Giuliani. He pointed to a study released this week by Harvard University’s Theda Skocpol, a political scientist who examined the failure of cap-and-trade legislation and other environmental aspirations of the Obama administration.
Skocpol blamed tougher than anticipated opposition from the right as well as a lack of imagination by the environmental community. It won’t get better in Obama’s second term, Skocpol warned.
“Whatever environmentalists may hope, the Obama White House and congressional Democrats are unlikely to make global warming a top issue in 2013 or 2014,” she wrote in her report, released Monday. “And there is no indication that pragmatic political consultants will soon advise most politicians in office or running for office to make this issue a top priority.”
The administration must “really walk a fine line to achieve a policy goal” on climate change, Maisano said.
“I think it’s a lot harder for them to do than many of these political activists who hold a press conference think," he said. "When they have James Hansen at a rally, they’re off the reservation. He has no idea what it will take to take meaningful first steps toward climate change."