Don’t expect big proposals tonight. In past State of the Union addresses, President Obama floated a clean energy standard, pushed Congress unsuccessfully to act on climate change and signaled to the nation the start of an executive agenda to reduce carbon emissions.
This year, he’ll talk about what he’s already achieved rather than unveil new visions about stemming climbing temperatures, observers believe. The speech opens his last year in office, a period in which he could focus on safeguarding his climate policies and further propel the issue into the minds of the public.
He may lack a major new policy initiative, but some advocates believe Obama’s influence will project the climate issue into the presidential race this spring and summer by forcing the Republican and Democratic nominees to contrast their policies to address it.
"I think he understands this is likely to be a general election issue," said Alden Meyer, director of strategy and policy for the Union of Concerned Scientists. "If you look at the polling with independents, with younger Republicans, women and Hispanics, this is an issue that does not favor those who deny the reality of the problem. I think he sees a role that he can play in making this something that all candidates have to address going into the fall election."
Obama appears ready to focus on defending his carbon rules on power plants and explaining the economic benefits of expanding clean technology initiatives under the Paris climate agreement reached last month. He said in a video recording promoting the speech that he’ll speak about the future, and administration officials have indicated he’ll speak in broad themes about financial prosperity and personal safety.
But some observers believe he could also point to narrow but important policies to help his predecessors achieve the United States’ Paris goal to cut emissions up to 28 percent by 2025. Those efforts include finalizing economy standards for heavy-duty trucks, finishing rules to limit methane emissions at new oil and gas sites, and advancing a raft of energy efficiency standards for appliances.
There are also indications that the administration could devote its final year in office to helping persuade global leaders to adopt a ban on hydrofluorocarbons, or HFCs, under the Montreal Protocol. Members agreed to consider such an amendment last year, and it could be finalized before Obama leaves office. HFCs are sometimes called "super pollutants" because of their potency as a greenhouse gas. They’re found in liquid systems in refrigerators and air conditioners.
Making climate action ‘irrevocable’
Former White House climate aide Joe Aldy said he expected the president to set his comments on climate change against a backdrop of global action in part to counter critics’ claims that his climate agenda would hamper U.S. competitiveness.
"There’s a lot of concern politically about how cutting emissions at home may put our firms at a competitive disadvantage, but the president and his team brought back an agreement from Paris which has mitigation actions from virtually everybody in the world," said Aldy, who now teaches at Harvard University.
Others see the speech as an opportunity for Obama to secure not just his legacy but the climate policies he’s put into motion. Tom Steyer, the billionaire who founded NextGen Climate, said the address should begin a year of efforts to make the Clean Power Plan and other initiatives "irrevocable."
"The most important thing is for Americans, across partisanship and geography and economic levels, to decide this is the thing we need to do, and he can explain what that is and how," Steyer said on a conference call with reporters yesterday. "It’s a chance for him to really address America and explain to them what’s been going on, what still needs to be done and why it’s important."
Roger Ballentine, chairman of the White House Climate Change Task Force under former President Clinton, said Obama might skip talking about the Clean Power Plan altogether. Lawmakers were sidelined when Obama recently vetoed efforts to dismantle the regulations through the Congressional Review Act. Instead, Ballentine believes the president will use broader language to describe the economic benefits, not the environmental ones, of the expanding clean technology sector.
He won’t get into the details about innovations in cars, renewable energy and information technology, but Obama is likely to encapsulate all of those progressions in populist overtones about jobs, Ballentine said.
Political messages are lower on the list of importance, he added. Obama might promote the scientific consensus on warming, as he did in his speech two years ago when he said "the debate is over."
GOP needed for future action
"I think Republicans are increasingly realizing that climate denial is a real loser proposition for them," Ballentine said. "He may not be able to resist tweaking them on that."
But others urged Obama to avoid naked politics on the issue. Former Rep. Bob Inglis (R-S.C.), who supports a revenue-neutral carbon tax, said that openly agitating Republicans could make it harder for GOP lawmakers to move toward a solution.
"If he really wants a legacy here, then stop the electioneering and start the discussion," Inglis said.
Though legislative compromise might be remote for Obama, future presidents will need the help of lawmakers to achieve the nation’s ambitious goals of cutting emissions 80 percent or more compared with 2005 levels by 2050.
"He knows for climate change, what he’s done is just the first step," Aldy said of Obama. "And hopefully, it’s a foundation the next administration can build on."
Reporters Jean Chemnick and Camille von Kaenel contributed.