The President Says He’ll Act on Climate Change. Does He Mean It This Time?

Making real green change will require more than Inaugural words.

President Barack Obama waves to the crowd after delivering his inaugural address during the presidential inauguration on the West Front of the U.S. Capitol in Washington on January 21, 2013. (Photo: Pool/Reuters)

Jan 22, 2013· 3 MIN READ
A six-time grantee of the National Geographic Expeditions Council, Jon writes about all things ocean.

With just a few sentences in his second inaugural address, President Obama gave a big jolt of encouragement to environmentalists that he would vigorously pursue climate change initiatives in his second term.

After pledging to continue to fix the economy, the President quickly pivoted to global warming:

“We, the people, still believe that our obligations as Americans are not just to ourselves, but to all posterity. We will respond to the threat of climate change, knowing that the failure to do so would betray our children and future generations.

“Some may still deny the overwhelming judgment of science, but none can avoid the devastating impact of raging fires, and crippling drought, and more powerful storms. The path towards sustainable energy sources will be long and sometimes difficult. But American cannot resist this transition. We must lead it.”

The President’s words were backed by his Veep’s, when on Saturday night at the Green Ball, Joe Biden said, “I’ll tell you what my green dream is: that we finally face up to climate change…I don’t intend on ending this four years without getting an awful lot more done. Keep the faith.”

Alden Meyer, director of strategy and policy at the Union of Concerned Scientists, told the Associated Press that Obama’s words on climate change were a “clarion call to action, leaving no doubt this will be a priority in his second term.”

Though there were a variety of accomplishments on the environmental front during the President’s first term—the massive stimulus plan passed in the early days of the President’s first term contained $90 million for green technologies, CAFÉ standards for fuel efficiency were elevated to new heights, and the EPA began squeezing air quality standards to reduce the use of coal—the green community certainly shouldn't have expected the President's very firm, very public defense of taking action on climate.

Hopefully that all changed yesterday. Andy Revkin suggested in his New York Times Dot Earth blog that the speech was “presumably a sketch of what’s to come in the State of the Union message and policy initiatives this year.” Which means that come February 12, he’ll ask for the bucks to support his big talk.

Those hopes center on things like clamping down on further emissions from coal-burning power plants, new energy efficiency standards for both homes and offices, and a big push for more fuel efficient cars. It also includes caps on carbon and, somewhat controversially, an expanded push for more natural gas.

What about Keystone XL, the controversial pipeline running from Canada to refineries in the Gulf Coast? Now that he's not facing reelection, Obama may very well decide it’s not necessary.

Heads of the big three environmental groups, post-inauguration, were effusive with their support:

“This is a call to action against the climate chaos that is sweeping our nation and threatening our future,” said Frances Beinecke, president of the Natural Resources Defense Council.

“We at EDF share the sense of urgency President Obama described,” Fred Krupp, President of Environmental Defense Fund. “We are fully focused on working with him and many others to achieve climate security and American clean energy innovation.”

“We will work tirelessly to ensure the transition to safe, clean energy sources to fight the most pressing challenge of our time,” said Sierra Club director Michael Brune.

The opposition was quick to chime in as well.

Tim Phillips, president of Americans for Prosperity, a group financed by the Koch brothers, who have made a fortune in refining and other oil interests, was not convinced. “His address reads like a liberal laundry list with global warming at the top,” Phillips said. “Americans have rejected environmental extremism in the past and they will again.”

The fact is that the Presdient put the words “climate” and “change” back to back in his inaugural was largely thanks to an act of nature. Without Superstorm Sandy as supportive evidence, President Obama’s call for a new focus on climate change, may have fallen way down his list of priorities.

One key ingredient to all of this may be the President’s choice to lead the Environmental Protection Agency (director Lisa Jackson stepped down in December). Best guesses are that he will appoint former Washington Governor Chris Gregoire, who, according to some bloggers, has a mixed record on the environment.

One clue to the President’s next steps on climate change may have been presaged by Washington Post writer Brad Plummer, who reminds us:

“A week after he won the 2008 presidential election, Barack Obama addressed a gathering of governors and other officials in Los Angeles, assuring them that global warming would be a top priority for his first term. “Now is the time to confront this challenge once and for all. Delay is not an option.”

Here's to hoping that, vis-a-vis climate change, a second-term President Obama bears no resemblance to a first-term President Obama.

Do you think President Obama will put the weight of his Presidency behind meaningful climate change initiatives in his second term, like cap and trade or a carbon tax? Tell us in the comments below.