The President’s Climate Pledge

President Obama in State of the Union Address places climate change adaptation and sustainable energy on heels of economic growth.

The nimble oratory of President Barack Obama at second-term initial State of the Union (SOTU) address — pressing climate change action to new heights in his presidency — provides pointed clarity to his vision of dealing with greenhouse gas emissions as pollutants and facing up to the risks posed by a changing climate.

And his promise — or threat — to flex Executive branch power for climate change action shows a clear potential path going forward. “If Congress won’t act soon to protect future generations, I will.”

News Analysis

Obama’s speech emphasized the consequences of climate change, framing the issue with extreme weather events, and it built on the prominent mention of climate in his inauguration remarks. He said:

But for the sake of our children and our future, we must do more to combat climate change. Yes, it’s true that no single event makes a trend. But the fact is, the 12 hottest years on record have all come in the last 15. Heat waves, droughts, wildfires, and floods — all are now more frequent and intense. We can choose to believe that Superstorm Sandy, and the most severe drought in decades, and the worst wildfires some states have ever seen were all just a freak coincidence. Or we can choose to believe in the overwhelming judgment of science — and act before it’s too late.

Manik Roy, vice-president of the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions, says he is convinced that Obama has personally cared about the issue of climate change for a long time, and he points to 2008 at the Democratic National Convention when Obama selected Al Gore to introduce him.

We’re So Over the Cap-and-Trade Defeat

Roy thinks back to Obama’s first term and the demise of the House-passed Waxman-Markey legislation, and now says “Everyone is past the grieving stage on cap and trade.”

“Now, nobody expects Congress to act in a serious way in this issue, and so the President will use his executive powers to do so,” Roy said. He noted there was once real concern that Congress might overturn EPA’s authority to regulate greenhouse gas, but those efforts have proven unsuccessful, opening the avenue for the administration to regulate emissions.

In its reporting on the State of the Union, Reuters reported that Obama “gave Congress an ultimatum on climate change: craft a plan to slash greenhouse gas emissions and adapt to the dangers of a warming world, or the White House will go it alone.”

In discussing his support for energy independence, energy efficiency and renewables in America’s energy future, Obama focused on energy security and jobs and again on emissions reductions. Reuters reported, “He vowed to push for more and cheaper solar and wind energy, and pledged to cut red tape to encourage more drilling for domestic natural gas, which Obama said had driven down fuel prices in the United States.”

The (U.K.) Guardian’s Suzanne Goldenberg reported on new polling data that “two-thirds of Americans want President Barack Obama to take ‘significant steps’ on climate change, adding momentum to his SOTU promise to take up the challenge with or without Congress.”

Some environmentalists were critical of a lack of specifics in Obama’s speech about how he’ll accomplish many of his goals. They also pointed to his saying little about the Keystone XL Pipeline. The Huffington Post offered a roundup of statements by environmental groups, citing their “hesitant optimism” at Obama’s commitment to combat climate change.

National Public Radio reported on climate as one of several items Obama would tackle “with or without” the help of Congress. “Knowing many of his ideas are likely to receive a familiar cold shoulder from a divided Congress,” Alan Greenblatt reported, “Obama announced that he would move forward on a number of fronts, if only on his own.”

For context, in advance of Obama’s speech, Politico on the day of the President’s address to Congress published an opinion piece on the administration’s track record on clean energy. Alex Trembath and Max Luke, of the Breakthrough Institute, argued that Obama has already done much to leverage America’s energy innovations. They ended their argument by stating “We can build on these successes and continue on the path toward increasingly cheap, reliable and clean energy if we fully commit to aggressive innovation across all technologies. That can be Obama’s climate legacy.”

Editor’s Note: An upcoming Yale Forum posting will review editorials and syndicated columnists’ views on the President’s State of the Union climate and energy issues.

Lisa Palmer

Lisa Palmer is a Maryland-based freelance writer and a Public Policy Scholar at The Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, D.C. She is a regular contributor to Yale Climate Connections. (E-mail: lisa@yaleclimateconnections.org, Twitter: @Lisa_Palmer)
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One Response to The President’s Climate Pledge

  1. I admire President Obama for standing over this issue,..I hope someday we’ve overcome the climate change so that the next generation will have better environment for a better future. great post!