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The State of the Union's Carbon Pollution

Dan Lashof

Posted February 13, 2013

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“Tonight, there is much progress to report,” the President said last night at the beginning of his State of the Union address.

When it comes to combating climate change, there was indeed. 

To begin with, President Obama noted that

…over the last four years our emissions of the dangerous carbon pollution that threatens our planet have actually fallen.

In fact, emissions last year were almost 13 percent lower than they were at their peak in 2005/2007. That’s due to an energy efficiency and renewable energy surge, as well as increased reliance on natural gas at the expense of even-more-polluting coal.

President Obama went on to make a compelling case to do more “for the sake of our children and our future,” bringing home the link between climate change and extreme weather.

Now -- now, 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. 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. (Applause.)

In fact, 2012 was the hottest ever recorded for the continental United States and more than 3500 monthly records were broken for extreme heat, rain and snow. Having the president connect those dots in a speech as prominent as the State of the Union is important because statements by political leaders have been “the largest single factor” explaining public concern about climate change according to Drexel University sociologist Robert Brulle. Continuing to rally public support for combating climate change will be crucial to overcome obstacles to reform that will inevitably be thrown up by the defenders of the fossilized status quo. Already Representative Ted Poe (R-Texas) has introduced legislation that would prevent EPA from setting common sense limits on carbon pollution, as it is required to do under the Clean Air Act.

Next, the President made an obligatory appeal for bipartisan common sense from Congress:

I urge this Congress to pursue a bipartisan, market-based solution to climate change, like the one John McCain and Joe Lieberman worked on together a few years ago.

In fact, the president surely knows that this Congress will do no such thing. But this was a not-so-subtle reminder that Senator McCain and many other Republicans were for cutting carbon pollution before they were against it—that is, before the ignorance caucus took over the House majority’s policy agenda.

If the president had stopped here his commitment to combating climate change would have wrung hollow. But crucially, he went on to say:

But if Congress won't act soon to protect future generations, I will. I will direct -- (applause) -- I will direct my Cabinet to come up with executive actions we can take now and in the future to reduce pollution, prepare our communities for the consequences of climate change and speed the transition to more sustainable sources of energy.

In fact, there are many, many actions the executive branch can take in the near term to help fight global warming. The most important of them is limiting pollution from the nation’s existing fossil-fuel power plants. They’re responsible for almost 40 percent of our country’s carbon pollution. And an NRDC proposal released in December shows how, using its existing authority under the Clean Air Act, the Environmental Protection Agency can cut power plant carbon dioxide emissions by 26 percent by 2020 and 34 percent by 2025 compared to 2005 levels.

The plan’s benefits—worth between $25 and $60 billion in 2020—far outweigh its costs—about $4 billion. Implementing the plan will drive investments in energy efficiency and clean energy, creating thousands of jobs across the country.  

The president also urged us to “cut in half the energy wasted by our homes and businesses over the next 20 years.” That’s a great idea that would help ensure that the U.S. reduces its carbon pollution in a way that also drives economic growth. In addition to building incentives for energy efficiency into standards set under the Clean Air Act, the executive branch can help achieve the president’s efficiency goal through appliance efficiency standards, mortgage financing rules, and energy research and development, among other measures. In fact, a report out last week by a commission convened by the non-partisan Alliance to Save Energy—its commission included former New York Governor George Pataki, retired General Wesley Clarke, and NRDC’s president Frances Beinecke—found that doubling U.S. energy efficiency can cut U.S. carbon emissions by 22 percent by 2020 and 33 percent by 2030. In the process the nation could save a staggering $327 billion a year. Here’s the sector-by-sector breakdown:

These improvements can yield almost a $3 return for every dollar invested, saving the average household more than $1,000 a year on energy and creating 1.3 million jobs by 2030.

“[T]his country only works when we accept certain obligations to one another and to future generations,” President Obama reminded Congress and the nation last night. “It remains the task of us all, as citizens of these United States, to be the authors of the next great chapter in our American story.”

You and I can help write that chapter by supporting the president when he leads, as he did last night, and by pushing him if he lags.

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Switchboard is the staff blog of the Natural Resources Defense Council, the nation’s most effective environmental group. For more about our work, including in-depth policy documents, action alerts and ways you can contribute, visit

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