ImageFour years ago, Barack Obama assumed the presidency amidst expectations that, in retrospect, were clearly unrealistic in light of the historic economic problems engulfing the world’s economy. Looking back, it is unsurprising—though highly problematic—that Washington failed to act decisively to address climate change.

But now the question is what comes next when it comes to climate change and the broader sustainability debate in Washington.

There are some promising signs. President Obama has consistently included climate and energy as one of the top three or four priorities for his second term. The “silver linings playbook” suggests that it may be possible to parlay last year’s terrible drought and superstorms into a more tangible understanding that peoples’ daily lives are affected by climate change, and why action is so crucial. And the arrival of shale gas as a domestic—and potentially cleaner—form of energy may unlock opportunities to make more progress on a transition to lower-carbon prosperity.

For this to become a reality, four things need to happen:

  1. Financial market reform: The SEC may be as important as the EPA when it comes to sustainability. This is because market listing rules, and assumed definitions of fiduciary responsibility, continue to interfere with wider uptake of sustainable business practices. There is hope on the horizon: Just this past year, the International Integrated Reporting Committee, the Sustainability Accounting Standards Board, and the Natural Capital Declaration have launched and gained momentum. Over the coming four years, the SEC will have the opportunity to institutionalize company reporting on their social and environmental impacts—not only in sustainability reports, but also in their 10-K reports on performance.
  2. Business advocacy: It’s time to rebuild the business coalitions, such as the United States Climate Action Partnership, that were in evidence five years ago. It seems highly unlikely that cap and trade will return as a politically viable option, and there are very legitimate questions about whether it should. But something should happen to create policy frameworks that support a shift to lower-carbon prosperity. It is certainly true that states and cities have been in the lead the last four years, and that’s all to the good. But it does not absolve Washington from the need to act. Business is likely to be crucial in prompting leadership. We need to rebuild coalitions of large global companies who push for greater American leadership towards an international agreement on targets, commitments, and funding. This time around, why not focus on a two-prong agenda of climate solutions and innovation.
  3. War on waste: This is the best way to engage the public in a time of economic stagnation. I recall the government-led advocacy to save gasoline—the 1970s-era “Don’t Be Fuelish” public service announcements, for those James Garner fans out there—, and it’s time to have a similar effort to halt our wasteful ways when it comes to food, water, and energy. Surely this is one issue on which red state and blue state lawmakers can agree. It’s time to make waste as un-American as it is uneconomic.
  4. Getting money out of politics: Lastly, one topic not related directly to sustainability but possibly the topic of most importance: reforming the way American elections are financed. The statistics are well-known, and staggering: The 2012 elections cost an estimated US$6 billion. Unfortunately, the impacts are also well-known: Lawmakers are intensely focused on raising money and keeping contributors happy. The very long-term challenges that are at the heart of the sustainability agenda go ignored so that the fundraising imperatives of the present are attended to.

F. Scott Fitzgerald famously wrote that “there are no second acts in American lives.” Maybe not, but there is a second term for President Obama. With the financial crisis receding, he has the chance to make real, lasting progress to put American prosperity on a truly sustainable path.  Business leadership, market and campaign finance reforms, and a war on waste can make it happen.

image:Filip Fuxa /Shutterstock.com