This guest blog comes courtesy of Jake Olzen, an activist, journalist and farmer in Lake City, Minn.
In the wake of Hurricane Sandy and his re-election, President Barack Obama will no doubt have his work cut out for him in the next four years. Unfortunately to this point Mr. Obama has not proved capable—in office or on the campaign trail—in addressing one of the most pressing, all-encompassing global issues: climate change. In fact, with the exception of the scientific and activist communities, there has been minimal leadership from most religious, political and economic leaders with regard to the serious challenges climate change has already presented—challenges that will likely only intensify.
In the final week before the election, Hurricane Sandy was an ominous reminder of the omission of climate change from the campaign discourse. With this year’s historic droughts, record-high temperatures and increased occurrences of extreme weather events, one would have thought that the presidential candidates would have seriously addressed climate change.
During the election, both President Obama and Gov. Romney ignored appeals from the Union of Concerned Scientists to debate climate change as an issue of national concern. Global warming was not mentioned in any of the presidential debates—a first in 28 years. Even as New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg endorsed Mr. Obama, in part, because of pending climate change, Mr. Obama never uttered the words Hurricane Sandy and climate change in the same breath.
Meanwhile Mr. Obama’s position appears defined by transnational fossil fuel companies. The controversial Keystone XL tar sands pipeline remains on the table. National Aeronautics and Space Administration climatologist James Hansen, one of the first scientists to sound the alarm on global warming, reports that building the Keystone XL would mean “game over for the climate.” The Obama administration has delayed making a final decision on the pipeline until after the election. TransCanada, however, assuredly continues construction of the pipeline under Mr. Obama’s “all-of-the-above” energy solutions strategy.
Under a Romney administration the Keystone XL was sure to be fast-tracked.
“I can guarantee you, if I’m president, on day one,” said Mr. Romney at an Ohio campaign stop in June, “we’re going to get the approval for that pipeline from Canada. And if I have to build it myself to get it here, I’ll get that oil into America.”
At least with Mr. Romney, citizens knew where he stood on the pipeline. That is more than can be said for Mr. Obama, who adamantly affirms that climate change is not a hoax while at the same time opening up new off-shore drilling sites and blaming an ineffectual Congress. Mr. Obama skipped out on the Rio 20+ Earth Summit, a United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development, in May, and his lackluster leadership at the much-anticipated Copenhagen climate talks in 2009 ended without any binding agreements to cut greenhouse gases or secure a formal international climate treaty.
The tireless Bill McKibben, a prominent author and environmentalist, recently published a harrowing reality check on the state of the climate. In “Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math,”  Mr. McKibben spells out with clarifying detail the perilous future if things don’t change—and fast.
“We have five times as much oil and coal and gas on the books as climate scientists think is safe to burn,” he wrote. “We’d have to keep 80 percent of those reserves locked away underground to avoid that fate.” The seriousness of those numbers can be easily overlooked by policymakers. Scientists say that to stay below 2 degrees Celsius of warming, we can burn 565 more gigatons of carbon. In global fossil fuel reserves, there are 2,795 gigatons available to burn. These are worth $27 trillion, according to financial analysts. The decision to not burn that fuel is a moral one.
More than a decade ago, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops issued a statement, “Global Climate Change: A Plea for Dialogue, Prudence and the Common Good ,” which asked that “economic theories and political platforms” be put aside in favor of “protecting both the human and natural environment.” Time and again, the bishops have urged that “of particular concern to the Church is how climate change and the response to it will affect poor and vulnerable people here at home and around the world.”
Study after study has shown that the poor and vulnerable, particularly in the Global South, will bear the brunt of the ill effects of climate change. Yet they are not the ones most responsible for the causes of global warming. Emissions from the Global North account for 70 percent of all greenhouse pollution.
A recent Catholic Relief Services report, “Tortillas on the Roaster, ” details the risks of climate change specifically faced by Central American farmers.
Paul Hicks, a C.R.S. regional coordinator, said the findings demonstrate “an expected average temperature increase of around 1 degree Celsius by 2020 will severely affect maize, exacerbating water shortages and causing the plants to suffer from heat stress.” As a consequence, Hicks noted, economics losses for the region could amount to as much as $100 million per year.
Rome, too, has spoken. In 2011 the Vatican’s Pontifical Academy of the Sciences called on “all people and nations to recognize the serious and potentially irreversible impacts of global warming caused by the anthropogenic emissions of greenhouse gases.”
The kind of losses that Central American farmers—and farmers across the globe—will suffer due to climate change will have profound consequences for standards of living, regional stability and foreign policy. The Pentagon has identified climate change as a threat to U.S. security and is developing analysis and scenarios for dealing with climate-induced crises.
Action on climate change demands effective leadership from the U.S. president. The climate science is clear: It is happening, and we have to learn to live with it. The lack of high-level public discourse from the presidential candidates during the recent campaign was laughable to the international community. If only the stakes were not so high.
Vice President Joe Biden, a Catholic, should help the Obama administration become familiar with the St. Francis Pledge of the Catholic Climate Covenant . This broad coalition of Catholic organizations, including the U.S.C.C.B., organizes and educates Catholics around climate change with the promise to “advocate for Catholic principles and priorities in climate change discussions and decisions, especially as they impact those who are poor and vulnerable.” Now that the Obama administration has four more years, will they lead the way to make our adaptation to an unstable climate easier and less costly for the most vulnerable?