Obama to Congress: Act on Climate Change, or I Will

In his State of the Union address, the President pledged to take executive action to stop ‘dangerous carbon pollution.’

U.S. House Speaker John Boehner and Vice President Joe Biden stand to applaud as President Barack Obama delivers his State of the Union speech on February 12, 2013. (Photo: Charles Dharapak/Reuters)

Sal holds a political science degree from the George Washington University. He's written about all things environment since 2007.

For the second time in three weeks, President Obama laid down the gauntlet on global warming, telling the nation in his State of the Union address that if Congress fails to pass “bipartisan, market-based” climate change legislation to “protect future generations, I will.”

This much is clear about President Obama and climate change—he’s now willing to say all the right things. What remains to be seen, however, is if he will actually do any of them.

“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,” he said.

While the President didn’t explicitly say what steps he would take to circumnavigate the current Congress—which has precisely zero appetite for passing any climate change legislation, let alone the kind that will make a meaningful dent in the greenhouse gases we emit into our atmosphere—green bloggers and environmental activists were by and large pleased about the demonstrativeness of Obama’s call to action.

“I’m genuinely surprised that he’s put climate change so early and so emphatically,” said Andrew Sullivan.

Activist extraordinaire Bill Mckibben of 350.org tweeted: “Strongest thing the pres did tonite was talk about the weather, and link it to climate change. A change from the campaign and a good one.”

McKibben, who will lead a protest against the proposed Keystone Pipeline XL on February 17 outside the White House, was referring to this line from the President: “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, floods—all are now more frequent and more intense.”

“The president has a full box of tools to strike back at climate chaos,” said Frances Beinecke, president of the Natural Resources Defense Council, in a statement. “The best tool he has is the Clean Air Act. It gives him the authority to reduce the carbon pollution from our dirtiest power plants, the single greatest threat to our climate future.”

Beyond broadly pledging to continue the green achievements of his first term, including the best-ever standards for clean cars and energy efficiency, the President fell short on specifics of just how he would use executive action to limit greenhouse gas emissions.

But, in a fantastic piece earlier this week, Grist’s Dave Roberts summarized four to-do’s that Obama can get done by using existing laws and regulations:

1) get the EPA to initiate tougher carbon standards at existing power plants

2) phase out certain hydrofluorocarbons (HFCS)

3) use current EPA rules and regulations to reduce methane

4) new appliance and equipment efficiency standards from the Department of Energy

As expected, not everyone was overjoyed with the President’s speech.

“While we are excited to hear the President connect the dots between climate change and increasingly severe weather, accurately explaining the problem is not nearly enough,” said Daniel Souweine of Forecast the Facts. “President Obama set the lowest possible bar for action—he did not pledge to stop the carbon-spewing Keystone XL Pipeline nor promise carbon regulations on existing power plants. In fact, he pledged no specific actions at all.”

In his GOP response, Florida Senator Marco Rubio said that “no matter how many job-killing laws we pass, our government can’t control the weather—he accuses us of wanting dirty water and dirty air….”

After last night, this much is clear about President Obama and climate change—he’s now willing to say all the right things. (This wasn’t always the case).

What remains to be seen, however, is if he will actually do any of them.

Stay tuned.

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