The politics of environmental justice

The politics of environmental justice

By Summy Lau

After four years in office, President Obama looks ten years older as he takes center stage at the White House for his second inauguration. New creases line his mouth and eyes, his hair has turned peppery gray, and freckles and spots dot his once smooth, bright skin. And after four years of Congressional gridlock, fierce criticism over health care reform, stimulating the economy and raising the debt limit, it’s not difficult to see how the job might age someone beyond their years. Instead of the vibrant, young energy that exuded from then-Senator Obama on the campaign trail in 2008, a determined expression sets into the President’s face.

As his inauguration speech rolls forward, powerful and hopeful words delivered by a skilled orator, it quickly becomes clear that the change in his demeanor isn’t limited to his outward appearance. There’s a newfound urgency in his voice, a new assertiveness in his promises.

For climate change activists, the new change is welcome, even years overdue.

In one speech, President Obama mentions climate change more than he has the entire campaign. It was an election season marked by “climate silence,” with both sides refusing to address the issue for the first time in a generation.  For now, we can hope that the days of silence are over.

 “If Congress won’t act soon to protect future generations, I will,” President Obama asserts. “I will direct my Cabinet to come up with executive actions we can take, now and in the future, to reduce pollution, prepare our communities for the consequences of climate change, and speed the transition to more sustainable sources of energy.”

It’s almost hard to believe this no-holds-barred President is the same Obama that, as New Yorker contributor Elizabeth Kolbert points out, “sat on the sidelines in 2009 and 2010 while congressional leaders tried to put together majorities in favor of climate legislation. Since the midterm elections, Obama has barely mentioned climate change, and just about every decision that his Administration has made on energy and the environment has been wrong.”

To be fair, our President is facing one of the most gridlocked legislative branches in American history. Congress refuses to work with the president and across party lines in order to enact crucial change. Prominent Republican representatives, such as Sen. Rubio and Rep. Bachmann, deny climate change altogether, decry Obama’s efforts as futile and dismiss global warming as a money-making myth.

Such heavy divides have made climate change the defining issue of our time. “Climate change has become a wedge issue,” says Roger Pielke Jr., professor of Environmental Studies at the University of Colorado. “It’s today’s flag-burning or partial-birth-abortion issue.”

I sincerely hope that President Obama recognizes the weight of his words. The time to act is now, and the change we need is drastic. Will his renewed promises to protect our dying Earth be the spark that finally lights this movement? Or will we fail to hold him accountable once more?

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