Analysis: Obama Vows to Act on Climate Change, Details Still Unclear

  • President Obama and Vice President Biden at the State of the Union address in the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., Feb. 12, 2013. Official White House Photo by Pete Souza.

February 13, 2013

Energy, climate change and fuel efficiency made up about 10 percent of President Obama’s first State of the Union address this term.

A small gathering of environmentalists in Pittsburgh watching at the Sierra Club’s headquarters seemed satisfied with what they heard.

“I was pleasantly surprised by the amount of time devoted to climate change,” said Randy Francisco, the lead organizer at the local club office. “I’ve been watching State of the Union speeches--and you didn’t hear coal in this one.”

The Huffington Post also suggested a wider range of environmentalists felt the same. Its headline read "Climate Change In Obama's Speech Draws Hesitant Optimism From Environmentalists."

Environmentalists had been awaiting detail about the President’s plans to deal with climate change after Mr. Obama mentioned the topic during his inauguration speech.

“I would’ve liked him to emphasize the climate change more,” said Barbara Grover, a retiree and chair of the Sierra Club’s Allegheny group. “That is THE biggest issue we have to face and he didn’t stress that. That’s the number one issue--if we can't solve that one, we’re not here anymore.”

In past addresses, Obama talked about green jobs and energy independence but never made a connection between climate change and possible environmental and economic perils.

This time, he spoke about the science of global warming and severe weather events such as drought, floods and hurricanes that have hit the United States in the past decade.

“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,” the President said.

Obama called on Congress to come up with a bipartisan, market-driven solution to climate change. Environmentalists and even industry has been pushing for attaching a slowly rising price on carbon dioxide emissions. Energy experts say this approach would marshal market forces to reduce greenhouse gas emissions without micromanaging by Congress or the Energy Department.

It would also let other countries join the United States in creating a bigger, global market for carbon.

But a carbon cap-and-trade law didn’t make it through Congress in Obama’s first term. Most political experts agree it is very unlikely that a bill would go through both houses during his second term in office.

Senator Barbara Boxer, a Democrat from California, is planning to take action. She’s due to team up with Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) to sponsor a bill to “put a price on carbon.”  Her bill is widely seen as merely sending a message.

Obama said if Congress doesn’t act on measures to slow down the effects of climate change, the executive branch will.

But he was vague about what he plans to do. He did not mention the biggest card he could play: The Clean Air Act. The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that under the Clean Air Act, the Environmental Protection Agency can regulate carbon and other greenhouse gases in future power plants. That rule is expected to go into effect in April.

The EPA could also regulate existing plants and other industrial polluters. Most energy experts agree many coal-fired power plants--a major source of carbon dioxide--could not meet the standard.

Obama did put the pressure on Congress, vowing to push for more and cheaper solar and wind energy, and asked Congress for permanent wind energy production tax credits.

The President also pledged to cut red tape to encourage more drilling for domestic natural gas. Obama said  the boom in natural gas production had brought down domestic fuel prices.

"We produce more natural gas than ever before- and nearly everyone's energy bill is lower because of it. And over the last four years, our emissions of the dangerous pollution that threatens our planet have actually fallen," said Obama.

Obama said he wants Congress to make natural gas a cleaner fuel and expand the use of alternative energy such as wind and solar. To help pay for that, Mr. Obama proposed using money from oil and gas drilled on federal land. About 30 percent of domestic oil and gas production and 40 percent of US coal is managed by the federal government.  Congress would have to approve this revenue transfer.