President Obama showed last night that he was eager to spend his renewed political capital on priorities that he sometimes downplayed during his first four years in office -- notably climate change.
Obama devoted more than two paragraphs of his State of the Union address to the issue, portraying climate change as a dangerous threat to be avoided through regulation if legislation proves to be impossible.
"For the sake of our children and our future, we must do more to combat climate change," said the president, lowering his voice and slowing his pace for emphasis.
The line earned a standing ovation from members of his Cabinet and many Democratic lawmakers, and it marked a clear departure from his past two State of the Union speeches, in which he barely mentioned climate change at all.
The words were completely absent in 2011, swapped for proxies including "clean energy." They made a brief appearance last year, when Obama acknowledged that Congress was too divided to pass comprehensive legislation to address the issue.
Instead, his speech last year focused on "protecting our kids from mercury pollution," a reference to U.S. EPA's plans to finalize a utility toxics rule.
But this year, climate change was back with a vengeance. Picking up where he left off during last month's inaugural address, Obama took on climate skepticism, reeling through a litany of recent extreme weather events culminating in last year's Superstorm Sandy. These must either be "all a freak coincidence," or the United States and its lawmakers must "choose to believe the overwhelming judgment of science -- and act before it's too late."
He urged Congress to pass a greenhouse gas cap-and-trade bill like the one Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), his 2008 general election opponent, sponsored with former Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) in 2003 and 2005. That line drew applause from Democrats and a few brief claps from McCain, seated beside Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), who worked on carbon dioxide legislation in the 111th Congress.
But because prospects for a climate bill remain minuscule this Congress, Obama quickly moved on.
"If Congress won't act soon to protect future generations, I will," he declared. "I will direct my Cabinet to come up with executive actions to 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 statement represented a shift from Obama's tendency during the 2012 campaign to focus on his past achievements, especially a deal on tailpipe emissions rules from vehicles, which came early in his first term. The focus in this speech was on the future and referred to future regulations that might be more controversial than the vehicle rules were -- including greenhouse gas regulations for existing power plants and more federal curbs on emissions from oil and gas development.
Congressional supporters of action on climate change were pleased with the remarks.
"It was welcome and overdue," said Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), who gives a climate-themed speech on the Senate floor every week and is working with Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) on a bicameral effort that aims to influence the Obama administration's climate change activities.
"I look forward to working with the administration to make sure that the strong regulatory executive action that he promised occurs, because without that there's no incentive for the polluters to engage with us," he added.
Whitehouse said that future generations would look back on this administration and judge it for what it did and did not do on climate change.
"And I think that for all the good he's done, he will leave a very diminished legacy if he hasn't addressed this issue," he said.
Senate Environment and Public Works Chairwoman Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) called the speech "visionary, sincere and honest."
Boxer said it was the George W. Bush administration, not Obama's, that would be judged for failing to make progress on climate.
"We wasted that time," she said. "And now we see the weather changing before our eyes. And if we are going to protect our kids, we better get moving."
Boxer has said EPA already has all the authority it needs to bring the nation's emissions down to a sustainable level.
But she plans to introduce legislation to curb emissions from buildings, and she is spearheading a "clearinghouse" group of senators who will introduce other climate proposals in the coming months.
The first of these will be Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), who will unveil a carbon tax proposal tomorrow.
Bill McKibben of the climate activist group 350.org and Michael Brune, executive director of the Sierra Club, will participate in the bill's rollout. The two groups are organizing a rally in Washington, D.C., on Sunday to urge Obama to reject a permit for the Keystone XL oil pipeline and to act on climate. The Sierra Club will also engage in civil disobedience for the first time in its 120-year history today at the White House to drive home the same point.
Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) said that while Obama's words on climate were strong, action by the administration wasn't enough.
"I think he can take significant action, but it's more effective if Congress also acts," Cardin said.
Senate Energy and Natural Resources Chairman Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) said he sensed that Obama is looking for Congress to enact some form of bipartisan energy legislation.
But Republican lawmakers questioned the idea that Obama could spur them to compromise on emissions-reduction legislation by flexing his regulatory muscles.
"I think it depends how you define climate," said Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, the top Republican on the Senate energy panel and a one-time sponsor of cap-and-trade legislation.
She dismissed any talk that Congress revisit cap and trade, saying, "I don't think that that is realistic." She also panned Obama's pledge to use existing authorities to reduce emissions. "If we're going to do policy, you do policy through legislation," she said.
Murkowski did say that Congress might find common ground on legislation that would help develop low-carbon technologies, such as a technology trust fund fueled by revenue from oil and gas lease sales.
But Rep. Bill Johnson (R-Ohio), who represents a coal-producing district, said even that proposal would not fly with the right flank of his party.
"What I'm in favor of is going after America's natural resources and making us more energy independent," he said.
Rep. John Shimkus (R-Ill.), chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Energy and the Environment, said the administration's regulatory efforts would indeed spur legislation -- just not the kind Obama wants.
"We'll always move to try and block what we think of as excessive regulation," he said. "It's mostly messaging, and just reinforcing the fact that we warned low-cost producers in the coal parts of our country that this president is not a friend to coal."
Reporters Phil Taylor and Manuel Quinones contributed.
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