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Before the State of the Union, Climate Talk is Nearing Full Boil

Pete Altman

Posted February 5, 2013 in Curbing Pollution, Health and the Environment, Solving Global Warming

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Talk of action on climate change has been prominent since President Obama delivered his second Inaugural Address. Yesterday morning, Politico Pro (subscription required) examined the individuals who might be instrumental in helping the President fulfill what the President himself calls "an obligation to future generations," including NRDC leader Frances Beinecke. 

Since the President’s Inauguration, mayors and state legislators have raised their voices in support of Presidential leadership on climate, adding to a recent spate of encouragement from environmental groupsLatino leaderssmall business groups and others.

That's why Robert Redford is urging people to join what organizers think will be the biggest climate rally in history, on February 17th. The "Forward on Climate Change" rally will bring together the tens of thousands of individuals who want clear and meaningful action now. As Redford writes:

From rejecting the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline to limiting carbon pollution from our nation's dirty power plants, President Barack Obama's legacy will rest squarely on his response, resolve, and leadership in solving the climate crisis.

In the wake of the Inaugural, and as we look towards the State of the Union, I wondered how the President's call for action on climate change has been received, and what kind of reaction has emerged to the idea of the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) cleaning up carbon from power plants? 

As it turns out, reaction to the prospect of Presidential leadership and cleaning up power plants has been pretty good. Consider the following national media stories:

“UP with Chris Hayes,” MSNBC, 1/25/13.   Hayes’ story of the week is “hope and climate change” in the wake of President Obama’s Inaugural Address.   Hayes also led an MSNBC panel (including the Natural Resources Defense Council’s Frances Beinecke) on what the EPA should do with its existing authority to regulate carbon pollution.

Examining President Obama’s stance on climate change in his second term, Full Court Press with Bill Press, January 1/25/13.  Bill Press asks Bob Deans of the Natural Resources Defense Council why President Obama did not do more for the environment in his first term. Deans says, “He had a tough time. He tried to go the legislative route.” But now, Deans says, the president has a historic opportunity to go after the 40 percent of carbon pollution that comes from power plants around the country, and he can use the Clean Air Act to set standards for power plants. Deans says to people who doubt evidence on climate change that the evidence has “jumped out of the lab and out of the theoretical into our backyards and cornfields, lakes and streams.   (Bob Deans also appeared on the same day on “Late Night with Jim Bonhannon” show.) 

Obama’s Chance for a Fresh Start on a Climate-Smart Energy Quest, New York Times, 01/21/13.  It was heartening to see President Obama include an ample reference to the importance of climate-smart energy policies in his short inaugural address today. The speech is presumably a sketch of what’s to come in the State of the Union message and policy initiatives this year. In his speech, Obama framed the need to address climate change and non-polluting energy technologies as both as a legacy issue and a real-world priority. Importantly, he also cautioned that this will be a long journey.

Obama Inaugurates Renewed Energy on Climate Change, Huffington Post, (op-ed), 01/23/13.  Sarah van Gelder: President Barack Obama included a call to action on climate change in his inaugural speech on January 21, surprising those who thought gun violence and immigration reform would take top billing. It's not the first time he's talked about the issue. During his 2008 campaign, he spoke of working for the moment when the rise of the oceans would begin to slow and our planet would begin to heal. During the 2012 election campaign he was mocked for that statement. But no one was laughing this fall when waves swept over lower Manhattan and towns up and down the eastern seaboard, nor this summer when much of the Midwest suffered from drought and brave firefighters battled unprecedented fires across the west.

A New Presidential Term for Climate Change, Scientific American, 01/22/13. President Obama’s second term has begun with a strong stance in support of a U.S. transition to a clean energy economy. In the second-term President’s inauguration speech yesterday, he zeroed in on climate change and its implications for future generations.  

In Second Inaugural Address, Obama Makes Climate a Priority, NPR, 01/22/13.  President Obama pulled out a surprise in his inaugural address on Monday. After barely mentioning climate change in his campaign, he put it on his short list of priorities for his second term. "We will respond to the threat of climate change, knowing that the failure to do so would betray our children and future generations," he said. Today the White House had scant detail on what the president plans to do. But his rhetoric was music to the ears of some environmental leaders, including Frances Beinecke, president of the Natural Resources Defense Council, who was listening to the president's speech while standing behind him on the platform at Capitol.

The NRDC solution for the carbon pollution problem is getting a lot of attention as a possible course of action for the President:

Environmentalists Want Obama to Steer Clear of Congress on Climate Change, CNN, 01/23/13.  Environmental advocacy groups hope President Barack Obama will live up to the words of his second inaugural address that put climate change front and center on the national agenda even though he rarely mentioned it during the presidential campaign. But the same advocates, including the Sierra Club and the Natural Resources Defense Council, say the president should use the power of the executive branch to further those aims rather than pursuing a congressional strategy.

Obama Could Bypass Congress to Fulfill Climate Pledge, Bloomberg, 01/23/13. President Barack Obama, whose inaugural address made climate change a second-term priority, could bypass Congress and implement much of his environmental agenda unilaterally through regulations and executive action. Obama can accomplish much of what was sought under the failed 2009 cap-and-trade legislation through regulation, in part because of legal authority stemming from the four-decade- old Clean Air Act and a 2007 Supreme Court decision applying it to carbon emissions. …“He doesn’t need new legislation in order to make significant progress,” David Doniger, climate policy director for the Natural Resources Defense Council, said. “The primary pathway is to use the legal authority he clearly already has.”

How Obama Can Have a Great Second Term, New York Magazine, 01/23/13. So, where is progress likely? The first is on climate change. The legislative path is totally dead. The Republican Party simply does not acknowledge unlimited dumping of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere as a public-policy problem. Polls show that Republican voters are becoming even more skeptical of climate science even as the evidence strengthens. The administration does, however, have the chance to resolve the largest outstanding piece of the climate agenda by unilaterally imposing regulatory changes on power plants through the Environmental Protection Agency.

Additionally, the attention on the Obama climate message is spreading in the news media across the nation:

Time to Act on Climate Change, Tampa Bay Tribune, January 28, 2013.  The federal government must take another run at capping greenhouse gas emissions. When cap-and-trade, an effort to cap emission levels and allow the trading of emissions permits, was shelved in 2010, it put climate change on the back burner in Congress. Now Obama is planning to use his regulatory powers to bring change. 

Obama Has Many Independent Options to Move U.S. on Clean Energy, Climate, MinnPost, 01/24/13.  It will be some time, and perhaps not until his State of the Union address on Feb. 12, that we really know how Barack Obama intends to take up the challenge of climate change in his second term. But his words on the subject last Monday were stirring, at least to my ear. By making this issue the strongest single emphasis of his second inaugural address, the president has moved it higher in the public conversation as well. 

Mr. President, Use Your Bully Pulpit on Climate Change!, Philadelphia Inquirer/Public Health, 01/23/13. The New York Times is already reporting that, even in the wake of the president’s eloquence on the imperative to act now, his path forward will be a restricted one. Instead of focusing on comprehensive legislative change, Obama will use the power of his office to administratively “reduce emissions from power plants, increase the efficiency of home appliances, and have the federal government itself produce less carbon pollution.” He can do this by directing the Environmental Protection Agency, for example, to issue regulations to decrease coal power plant emission, a move likely to face a litany of court challenges. 

Climate Authority, Akron Beacon Journal, (editorial), 01/22/13. How might the president overcome congressional opposition? The White House points to the use of executive authority. It already has brokered an agreement on increasing fuel-efficiency in cars and trucks. This could be supplemented with new efficiency standards for home appliances and buildings. The Environmental Protection Agency must apply stiffer requirements on coal-burning power plants, achieving a tougher bite by allowing greater time for compliance.

The message is clear:  President Obama’s call for action on climate change has been well received.  Now, the time has come for the EPA to get the support it needs to use its existing authority to make further significant reductions in carbon pollution.

 

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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 NRDC.org.

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