What are the possibilities and prospects for action on climate change if Barack Obama is reelected?
Real talk: Obama will get very little done on climate or energy domestically, especially if Republicans keep the House, most especially if they win the Senate too. The reasons are drearily familiar: deep polarization, corporate influence, and the 60-vote threshold in the Senate. Unless some large and unanticipated exogenous force knocks the system out of equilibrium, we can expect more of what the first term delivered, which is modest (read: woefully insufficient) progress on efficiency and clean energy.
But I've been thinking lately that Obama might still be able to make progress on climate through foreign policy.
It's clear that Obama sees climate as a legacy issue, something that could improve the world in an enduring way. In a recent piece on Obama's second-term prospects, Ezra Klein said: "Beyond the deficit, Obama's advisers see two big unfinished pieces of business from the first term: climate change and immigration reform." On the campaign trail, Obama has mentioned, in the context of a second-term agenda, "the long-term challenges that we're facing in terms of energy independence and climate change." In a recent Rolling Stone interview, Obama said: "I will be very clear in voicing my belief that we're going to have to take further steps to deal with climate change in a serious way."
But "legacy" and "long-term" are apparently not for the here and now, because as far as I know, he hasn't mentioned climate change since, not even during the recent drought. He's clearly not trying to make it part of his mandate in this election.
But! Presidents have a freer hand in foreign policy, and that's where they often make their mark, particularly in a second term, as both Klein and Ryan Lizza of The New Yorker have pointed out. Both mention that Obama’s team anticipates a “pivot” or “rebalancing” away from the Middle East and toward the Asia-Pacific region. Climate could be part of that pivot.