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Progressives enjoyed a rare abundance of electoral success last night—Senate wins for liberal candidates like Liz Warren, referendum success for gay marriage, and President Obama’s re-election. The President’s comfortable victory sets the tone for what hopes to be a more activist second term. It remains to be seen to what extent climate change will be among those priorities. The topic was notably absent from the campaigns (the debates in particular) until the last week, when superstorm Sandy devastated the New York metropolitan area. New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg singled out climate change (and its relation to Sandy) in his endorsement of the President’s re-election. In his acceptance speech, President Obama eloquently laid out a philosophy for his administration’s future: “We want our children to live in an America that isn’t burdened by debt, that isn’t weakened by inequality, that isn’t threatened by the destructive power of a warming planet.” This presented a stark contrast to a potential Romney celebratory address; Romney’s sole notable mention of climate change during the campaign was to ridicule the President’s focus on it during his convention speech.

What next, then, for climate change? Political reality, both internationally and domestically, will temper how far the President is able to take that vision. The priority in Europe remains economic growth and the durability of its monetary union; while they have been at the forefront of efforts at pricing carbon, they would be an uneasy pillar in any follow-on to the 2009 Copenhagen climate summit, which was only able to arrive at a non-binding agreement that countries should act to avert a 2-degree-Celsius rise in global temperatures. The developing world in particular is reluctant to adopt binding measures that will, in their eyes, sacrifice economic growth for environmental protections.

Domestically, the president faces even more robust constraints. The Democratic lead in the Senate is not filibuster-proof, and the House remains in the hands of the Republican party. The machinations of a possible deal over the “fiscal cliff”—the expiration of the Bush tax cuts and legislatively mandated spending cuts will take precedence in the first instance, and many state delegations will be reluctant to push legislation that will be seen as punishing local industries that are carbon-intensive. In Michigan, a ballot measure that would have increased the state’s renewable energy electricity target to 25 percent was overwhelmingly defeated, thanks in large part to spending by coal utilities.

In this respect, ongoing work within the executive branch and elsewhere might be the best avenue, in the intermediate term, to mitigate the costs of a warming planet. Progressives should take heart that, rhetorically, the president is no climate denier and, the overblown scandal over Solyndra notwithstanding, dedicated to further investment in clean energy (even as his paeans to “clean coal” ring hollow to many environmentalists). Though its unlikely there will be a follow-on to the green-friendly stimulus in 2009, the Department of Energy will no doubt continue important investment and research in this area. The Environmental Protection Agency will still answer to a greenish president who might begin to feel his legacy will be tied to more stringent action on climate. The EPA announced in March that they would require far-reaching carbon dioxide pollution controls on power plants. Despite the setback in Michigan, progressives should take heart at what some states are pushing through. Beginning in 2013, California will begin an experiment with its cap-and-trade system, aimed at reining in carbon emissions.

Climate change hawks will have another, rather unlikely ally in the Department of Defense. The Pentagon is concerned enough about how a warming planet is impacting its overseas posture that many commentators are pointing to climate change as a new national security concern, a view further fleshed out in a new report by the Washington, DC-based think tank The American Security Project (The Climate Security Report). A sustained engagement by the Pentagon on this issue would be crucial, as their procurement and investment decisions could have ripple effects throughout the U.S.’s manufacturing base, pulling entire industries into manufacturing greener products.

While an Obama second term might fall short of the sort of comprehensive and far-reaching measures that many in the environmental and scientific communities say are necessary to mitigate the effects of climate change, there are avenues for moderate improvement within the current political context. As the glow of an electoral victory fades, it will become clear to progressives that there is a lot of work left to be done.

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