President Obama declared that the uncertainty around climate change is at an end, telling Congress "the debate is over" about its impacts on the Earth.
His assertion in the State of the Union address served as a sugar rush for Democrats who are eager to confront opponents of reshaping the nation's carbon-rich energy system. They also promise to fuel resentment among Republican lawmakers who are steadily working to highlight the negative impacts of cutting greenhouse gases in the electricity sector.
"Climate change is a fact," Obama said in the first half of his speech. "And when our children's children look us in the eye and ask if we did all we could to leave them a safer, more stable world with new sources of energy, I want us to be able to say, 'Yes, we did.'"
Those lines drew applause from Democratic lawmakers gathered in the House chamber for Obama's fifth annual update to the nation. They also marked the fourth time since last January that Obama has used a high-profile speech to advance the state of climate science and the impacts of warming on Americans.
"Over the past eight years, the United States has reduced our total carbon pollution more than any other nation on Earth," Obama said. "But we have to act with more urgency -- because a changing climate is already harming Western communities struggling with drought and coastal cities dealing with floods. That's why I directed my administration to work with states, utilities and others to set new standards on the amount of carbon pollution our power plants are allowed to dump into the air."
The president met the expectations of environmentalists and Democratic lawmakers, who had urged him to explain the benefits of his executive actions to reduce carbon emissions at new and existing power plants. Some celebrated the speech as an affirmation that Obama is through bending to the will of a recalcitrant Congress.
"President Obama sent a clear signal that action to address the climate crisis won't be held hostage by the climate change deniers running the House of Representatives," Gene Karpinski, president of the League of Conservation Voters, said in a statement.
Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.), who helped pilot a greenhouse gas cap-and-trade bill through the House in 2009, applauded the president's "robust" effort to pursue actions that have eluded lawmakers.
"I think he made it very clear that he's instructing his administration to do everything they can to reduce greenhouse gases going up into the atmosphere, that climate change is real, it's a threat to our planet, and that he is going to do something about it," Markey said after the speech.
The science is 'wrong'
To one lawmaker, the president struck a cordial tone that was "arrogant in content," especially on his insistence around climate science.
"I think it again verified for us the science behind what he says is wrong because he had to use the word 'climate change' rather than 'global warming' because it's so cold," said Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.). "Now that it's so cold all over the world, it hasn't been warming for 16 years, he has to use the word 'climate change,' which means the science behind what he was saying was wrong."
Obama lauded his administration for overseeing decreasing greenhouse gas emissions levels, attributable to utilities' using more natural gas, expanded renewable energy and a slow economy.
Even as the president promoted lower emission rates, there are signs that they're again on the rise, said Eileen Claussen, president of the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions. She noted that "much stronger efforts are needed to rein them in."
"The most efficient way is to put a price on carbon," she said in a statement. "But there's no prospect of Congress taking serious action anytime soon, and the president is right to move forward with the regulatory tools at his disposal."
She said that 2014 will hold a test for the president's ambitious plan to regulate carbon emissions from new and existing power plants. The rules being drafted by U.S. EPA must provide "flexible approaches that protect both the climate and our economy."
Obama argued that the economic price of climate change -- on cities, businesses and the nation's children -- outweighs the price of retrofitting the nation's power plants. He described new opportunities in clean energy as an economic foundation, though he added that the transition "won't happen overnight, and it will require tough choices along the way."
Natural gas a 'bridge' to carbon-free cars?
The meat of his climate efforts doesn't include Congress. But Obama did invite lawmakers to take action on several energy initiatives. They include the creation of "sustainable shale gas growth zones" to beef up local economies and develop natural gas standards, an Energy Security Trust fund that uses oil and gas revenue to promote cleaner vehicles and a new tax credit to spur the construction of fueling stations for advanced vehicles.
A key to his plan calls for leveraging natural gas in transportation and industry. If extracted safety, "it's the bridge fuel that can power our economy with less of the carbon pollution that causes climate change," Obama said.
The president announced that the administration would help states and localities review proposed private-sector manufacturing plants relying on natural gas. In transportation, he said the administration will propose new incentives to run medium- and heavy-duty trucks on U.S.-made natural gas. He also announced a new, fuel-neutral tax credit to catalyze investments in natural gas and other alternative fuel infrastructure, including for biofuels, electrification and hydrogen.
In recent years, automakers have brought more advanced vehicles to market in working toward the administration's ambitious fuel economy targets set for passenger cars through 2025. In his speech, the president said he plans to push ahead with new standards for heavy-duty trucks in the coming months.
The administration finalized the first-ever fuel economy standards for heavy-duty trucks in 2011. "They were groundbreaking, and we should build on that success," said Rob McCulloch, director of infrastructure programs at the labor and environmental group BlueGreen Alliance. "The standard that follows will affect carbon pollution for years to come. We need to build on that legacy."
Obama's speech stands to disappoint some supporters who were listening for a forceful reproach to climate skeptics. Obama didn't address these "deniers," even as his former campaign machinery, Organizing for Action, has joined with Democratic allies to highlight their efforts to stall climate action.
Obama did not scold lawmakers last night for questioning the science, something he did last June when he accused the "Flat Earth Society" of delaying action.
The address seemed to reflect the findings of a poll released yesterday that says Americans are more concerned about day-to-day burdens than the sprawling challenges of climbing temperatures. Obama zeroed in on economic issues, from the minimum wage to the cost of health care.
Foundation for international action
The poll seems to support him. Of the 15 issues it presented, addressing climate change received the least support as a priority for this year with 27 percent of respondents saying Obama and Congress should act right now. Creating jobs came in first, with 91 percent expressing concern, followed by reducing the deficit, expanding pre-school education and dealing with Iran's nuclear program.
More respondents wanted to wait until next year to act on climate change. Some 41 percent said it should be a priority then, according to the NBC News/Wall Street Journal survey of 800 people.
Few analysts expected Obama to mention the international climate change agreement that countries have agreed to sign in 2015 to succeed the Kyoto Protocol, and there was little surprise last night that the pact was absent from his speech.
But Alden Meyer, director of policy and strategy for the Union of Concerned Scientists, said he appreciated hearing Obama acknowledge the need for U.S. leadership and lay out "opportunities for real progress" with countries like China and India.
"It will take global collaboration on an unprecedented level for humanity to come to grips with the climate crisis, and the United States is an essential player in this process. President Obama clearly gets it that to be a global leader on climate stage, other countries need to see we're doing our part here at home," Meyer said. "With tonight's recommitment to action, the president has bolstered our credibility and leverage on the international stage."
U.S. EPA is currently crafting a proposed rule to cut carbon dioxide emissions from the nation's fleet of existing power plants. The regulation, drawn from a seldom-used section of the Clean Air Act, will require states to devise plans that will lead to cuts in emissions through various means, like efficiency programs, renewable energy, fuel switching to natural gas, or carbon trading schemes.
The rule, which is expected to land on June 1, will add fuel to the fire in a critical election year for Congress, said Tim Profeta, director of the Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University.
"As the regulations for existing sources are maturing, the politics have intensified," he said.
For that, a strong statement on the use of administrative powers is needed, said Profeta, if only to reinforce the advances achieved last year through Obama's Climate Action Plan.
"I thought it was a very strong statement that called for leadership, but not a new set of policies," he said.
Reporters Lisa Friedman, Tiffany Stecker and Julia Pyper contributed.