President Obama may not detail the regulations he plans to implement to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in tomorrow's State of the Union address. But to a certain extent, it doesn't matter how specific the president gets in his annual address to Congress.
The president already made confronting the visible effects of rising temperatures and extreme weather the most substantial focus of his inaugural address, and federal agencies have plenty of authority to implement tough new climate change regulations without Congress having to act.
"I don't think it's important that he lay out a specific strategy in the State of the Union," said Jim Lyons, senior director of renewable energy programs at Defenders of Wildlife.
The president has repeatedly signaled his intention to make climate a top priority over the next four years, most notably in his inaugural address, where it received higher billing than other top issues like immigration or gun control. And the first member of his second-term energy and environment team, Interior Secretary nominee Sally Jewell, has a history of emphasizing conservation and won quick praise from environmental groups.
"For those who like to connect dots, I think that sends an important signal about the administration's priorities," Lyons said of the inaugural address and Jewell's appointment.
To be sure, environmentalists say, comprehensive climate and energy legislation would make the task much easier and remains a necessity over the long term. But with intransigence among House Republicans expected to continue apace for at least the next two years, there's little chance of that happening anytime soon.
Even without congressional action, environmentalists point to significant progress over the last four years: Wind and solar installations have doubled, U.S. greenhouse gas emissions are at their lowest level since the early 1990s, aggressive fuel efficiency rules are being implemented, and states and businesses are stepping up their own climate efforts.
"The politics and the economics of climate change ... are rapidly evolving in a positive direction," said Kevin Knobloch, president of the Union of Concerned Scientists.
Times have changed since the last push for climate legislation in 2009 and 2010.
"What's happened in the intervening time has been tremendous progress on leadership at the state and local level and in the private sector," Knobloch said. "And that's the foundation on which the president can stand and call for national progress."
Climate, energy and environmental issues are likely to get at least some attention in tomorrow's speech, but the level of detail the president lays out in his remarks remains to be seen. He is expected to turn his focus largely to economic issues, devoting a significant portion of his speech to improving middle-class opportunities and creating jobs -- including employment growth in the clean energy sector.
"I think he's going to tout the success he's had over the last four years both on reducing emissions and on clean energy innovations," said Josh Freed, vice president for clean energy at the centrist Democratic think tank Third Way. "And I suspect he will build on that by laying out a framework for how the U.S. can reduce emissions to an even greater extent, and innovate with clean energy, in a way that grows the private-sector economy over the next four years."
Knobloch suggested the president could point to the agreement worked out among the administration, automakers, states and environmentalists to ratchet down corporate average fuel economy standards as a model that could be applied to other sources of greenhouse gas emissions.
"That's what you see the president speaking to now, and that's the right place to start," he said, "because this isn't a negotiation of whether [emissions limits will be imposed]; it's a negotiation of when and how."
The Republicans' response, which will be delivered by Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), is likely to focus heavily on immigration reform, which the rising GOP star has made a central focus this year. Perennial Republican concerns like the lengthy review for the Keystone XL oil pipeline and complaints about U.S. EPA regulations also could receive some attention.
But Republicans got an early shot at outlining their energy priorities over the weekend, when Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), ranking member on the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, delivered the party's weekly address. She touted her recently released blueprint outlining an array of policy recommendations to exploit new domestic supplies of oil and natural gas while boosting renewable energy through continued funding of research and development (Greenwire, Feb. 4).
"Every recommendation in my blueprint is associated with a clear goal for the year 2020. We can end our dependence on OPEC oil. We can help make renewable energy more competitive, build on our efficiency gains, and re-establish the supply chain for critical minerals," Murkowski said. "We can ensure that research, and not endless regulation, is the force behind technological innovation. Through sensible regulatory reforms, we can prevent the misuse of environmental laws and allow projects to proceed -- and all the while maintaining the highest environmental standards in the world."