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Why President Obama should keep his promise to tackle climate change

President Obama
Reuters / Jonathan Ernst

A little less than four years ago, I was a bright-eyed intern in the Obama White House. The halls buzzed with hope, and optimistic predictions that we would tackle health care and then move on to the more challenging issues of climate change and immigration reform.

It wasn’t long, however, before the realities of the recession and extreme partisanship set in. The public’s disillusionment with politics grew almost as fast as the president’s gray hairs.

Obama’s victory on Nov. 6, though narrow, has offered a chance to reframe the debate. He has already promised that immigration reform will be introduced soon after his inauguration. Here’s why a climate bill should follow soon after:

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After the Earth Summit, young people push for real change

Young people protested at the Earth Summit in Rio last month. (Photo courtesy of Adopt a Negotiator.)

There are two ways to respond when you watch the world's leaders attempt to solve the planet's most pressing problems and fail: You can despair or you can raise hell.

After watching the 2009 climate talks in Copenhagen collapse, many bright-eyed young people despaired, suffering through months of what can only be described as a "Hopenhagen" hangover. More recently, when the diplomats at the Rio+20 Earth Summit produced a policy document with all the weight of a fluffy pink cloud, we watched the cloud pass and decided to get down to business.

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Don’t call me an environmentalist

I believe in climate change. I ride my bike everywhere, I work at a solar company, I buy organic and local when I can. I am young, liberal, and idealistic. But I'm not an environmentalist. And I'm not alone.

Over the past decade, the number of Americans who support the environmental movement has declined, with supporters increasingly split along partisan lines. On the other hand, most Americans strongly support developing clean energy, believe that global warming is an important issue, and regularly engage in behaviors that are good for the environment. At least that’s what we’ve told the researchers.

Gallup recently found that 83 percent of Americans want more government support for clean energy. Yale and George Mason University researchers found [PDF] that 72 percent of Americans believe that global warming should be a government priority. And another Gallup poll found that three out of four Americans regularly engage in environmentally friendly behaviors.

Apparently, many Americans are aligned with the environmental movement’s goals. We just don’t align ourselves with the movement itself.

So what’s wrong with the environmental movement? According to its more morose critics (who include a few of its former leaders), it’s dead. In my mind, it just hasn't changed to fit the times.