President Obama warned Congress that it must tackle "dangerous carbon pollution" in a pointed State of the Union address describing Superstorm Sandy and other natural disasters as no "freak coincidence."
The speech establishes a clear turning point for a president who treated climate change tentatively during a re-election campaign that featured a rare autumn hurricane with record storm surges and a blistering drought -- all coming during the nation's warmest year. It also accelerates the momentum on the issue that Obama began three weeks ago in his inaugural address, according to observers.
"But for the sake of our children and our future, we must do more to combat climate change," Obama said last night. "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 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," he added. "Or we can choose to believe in the overwhelming judgment of science -- and act before it's too late."
Obama openly waved the threat of using his executive authority to regulate the release of carbon dioxide from industry sources if lawmakers fail to "act soon." He suggested that Congress reconsider legislation similar to the cap-and-trade bill pursued in the past by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and retired Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.), a program that continues to be reviled among many Republicans.
"But if Congress won't act soon to protect future generations, I will," Obama said. "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."
The speech failed to satisfy some environmentalists, but Obama's commitment to reviving a political issue that lay largely dormant for two years, combined with his references to the current impacts of warming, won him widespread applause from those concerned about climate change.
"It's probably the best speech that a sitting American president has ever given on the subject," said Michael Oppenheimer, a professor of geosciences and international affairs at Princeton University.
Carol Browner, Obama's former climate adviser and a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, described the speech in a statement as "a big win for those who want action on climate change and believe now is the time to act."
Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) said Obama's words "were very welcome" but added that "we need to see them backed up by action."
"Between this and the inaugural [address], I think he's set a bar that is very promising," said Whitehouse, who is urging Obama to bypass Congress by instructing U.S. EPA to launch carbon dioxide standards for existing power plants.
'Off oil for good'
Still, it fell short of the specific policies that some advocates had hoped to hear, amounting to "not nearly enough," said Daniel Souweine, a campaign manager for 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," Souweine said in a statement.
The president did offer some details on proposals to double today's level of renewable energy by 2020, to use oil and gas revenue to fund research in carbon-free transportation technologies, and to erect an award program for states that enact aggressive efficiency measures to help the nation cut its energy use in half by 2030.
"So tonight, I propose we use some of our oil and gas revenues to fund an Energy Security Trust that will drive new research and technology to shift our cars and trucks off oil for good," Obama said.
An eight-page plan released by the White House last night says, "the United States must continue to take steps to reduce carbon pollution while also improving our ability to manage the climate impacts that are already being felt at home. The President has directed his cabinet to identify additional executive actions from across the administration to help reduce pollution, prepare our cities and nation for the worsening effects of climate change, and accelerate the transition to more sustainable sources of energy, which will be assessed if Congress does not take action."
Obama's description of the climate challenge is the exact opposite, or nearly so, of how some Republicans interpret mankind's relationship with the world. Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) said Obama is "pretty dedicated to ... harming our economy" with emissions-reducing programs.
"By the way, I'm certainly somebody who does not believe in man-made global warming," Johnson said yesterday. "I don't believe the science has just proved that in any way, shape or form. And I have no idea why anybody would want to penalize their economy to the tunes of potentially a trillion dollars or more to address something that may not even be caused by man. And even if it were, probably there's nothing we can do to reverse the course."
GOP lawmaker: U.S. climate record is 'really good'
That viewpoint is not emblematic of Republican philosophy. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) was hopeful yesterday that Obama would spark compromises in Congress by delving into environmental and energy issues during his address.
"There's some common ground on cleaning up the air, energy independence and jobs," Graham said before the speech. "It'd be a good way to get us moving forward."
But areas of compromise are difficult to identify in a Congress where many Republicans described Obama's speech as endorsing heavy-handed programs aimed at killing the economy.
"Look, I think our record on climate change is really good," Rep. Joe Barton (R-Texas) said after the speech. "Our emissions are down; the European Union's emissions are up. We didn't do cap and trade; they did. The market is changing our energy mix through low natural gas pricing, and that's putting pressure on the coal plants, and that's helping our economic competitiveness overseas."
Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski, the top Republican on the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, anticipated Obama's threat of using executive authority to stanch the flow of CO2. In 2010, she sought unsuccessfully to hamstring U.S. EPA's ability to regulate greenhouse gases by offering a resolution of disapproval. That remains an option in the future, she said yesterday.
"One of these days, hopefully, it'll work," Murkowski said of the resolution.
Before the speech, there was a school of thought that said Obama should intimately link his emphasis on economic issues with climate change. Sen. Mark Begich (D-Alaska) described "huge" impacts from warming on his state's economy, from fisheries being affected by ocean acidification to homes and roads "buckling" from melting permafrost. That's more persuasive than prioritizing environmental harm, he suggested.
"Now we're dealing with impacts of climate change," Begich said before the speech. "So again people can debate the science. I'm not debating the science. What I'm debating is, let's make this an economic argument, and I hope [Obama] does that."
A compromise on natural gas-powered trucks?
Obama hoed a familiar row on clean energy, a topic he has spoken about since his first State of the Union address, when he called for doubling the generation of electricity derived from wind and solar. He has reached that goal.
"Last year, wind energy added nearly half of all new power capacity in America," Obama said. "So let's generate even more. Solar energy gets cheaper by the year -- so let's drive costs down even further. As long as countries like China keep going all-in on clean energy, so must we."
Republican lawmakers, however, expressed concern that the president's push for renewable energy could come at the expense of domestic fossil fuel industries. Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) said he hoped the president would continue to support the expansion of domestic natural gas production.
"Natural gas is creating a jobs boom across our country, and we want to make sure that we continue that," he said before the speech. "I would hope the president will call on natural gas producers and other industries to find new ways to put natural gas to work" -- for example, in the nation's fleets of trucks, he said.
While some Republicans have expressed cautious support for the president's "all of the above" approach to energy, many still resist the expansion of grants or tax credits that stand to make wind and solar power more competitive with fossil fuels. Yesterday before the speech, Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), ranking member of the Senate Budget Committee, said that he would oppose federal measures to bring renewables closer to grid parity.
"I've supported alternative fuels in the past, but we simply can't mandate the utilization of energy sources that are not competitive financially," he said.
Click here for the plan Obama outlined in last night's State of the Union address.