The United States must act on climate change, but it doesn’t have to do it alone, President Obama said last night.
The president used his second-to-last State of the Union address not only to mount a passionate defense of his administration’s climate policies but to frame them as part of a global struggle to contain a challenge that he said threatens future generations.
The president couched his declaration that "no challenge … poses a greater threat to future generations than climate change" in the international policy section of his address. And while he glossed over specific domestic policies — like U.S. EPA’s power plant carbon rules and proposals to curb oil and gas methane — he reminded his audience that China agreed last year for the first time to cap its own emissions as part of a deal with the United States.
"And because the world’s two largest economies came together, other nations are now stepping up and offering hope that, this year, the world will finally reach an agreement to protect the one planet we’ve got," he said.
Supporters said Obama was showing his commitment to help secure a strong U.N. emissions agreement this December in Paris — the first such deal that could require reductions from both developed and major developing nations.
Obama helped pave the way for a deal by pledging that the United States would cut its own emissions between 26 and 28 percent compared with 2005 levels by 2025. The promise was made as part of a U.S.-China deal, and environmentalists hope Obama’s visit to India next week will also include climate-related announcements.
"By framing climate change more as a global issue than he ever has before, the president is both acknowledging the need to address the growing emissions share from developing countries and signaling his intention to continue aggressive international climate approaches, including bilateral efforts with India and others," said Paul Bledsoe, a former Clinton White House climate aide, now a senior fellow on energy at the German Marshall Fund.
Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) said after the speech that Obama appeared to be looking to Paris as his next big opportunity on climate.
"I think given the extensive executive authority in the area of foreign affairs, and the extent to which the fossil fuels industry currently controls the Republican Party in Congress, that’s a prudent place for him to direct his attention," he said. "But as a member of Congress, I still think there’s hope for Congress."
Whitehouse, who heads several climate caucuses, has said that Congress might be persuaded to enact a price on carbon emissions relatively soon as a substitute for EPA regulations.
The president has included climate change in every State of the Union address except his speech in 2011 — the year after hopes died that Congress might enact a carbon dioxide cap-and-trade bill.
Last night’s rhetoric was bolder than any past year — a fact that some critics attributed to Obama’s never having to see his party through a national election again.
But in declaring that no threat is greater than climate change, Obama appeared to be borrowing a line from his secretary of State, John Kerry, who made waves last year by classifying warming with threats like terrorism, epidemics and weapons of mass destruction.
"The reality is that climate change ranks right up there with every single one of them," Kerry said last February (Greenwire, Feb. 17, 2014).
The president noted last night the Pentagon’s warnings that climate change endangers national security by contributing to conflicts over resources.
"Global challenges require global solutions, and President Obama made clear that the U.S. will lead in a way that builds partnership and action from all countries," said David Waskow of the World Resources Institute.
"Tonight’s words not only signal that climate change is a legacy issue for the president, but it is also a clear and present danger to America’s national security," said Todd Shelton, top lobbyist for the World Wildlife Fund, in a statement. "Now, he must continue his push to reduce the United States’ greenhouse gas pollution and work with Congress to fully fund our promised fair share of the Green Climate Fund."
The president’s speech last night did not mention his promise that the United States would contribute $3 billion over four years to the U.N. fund for climate adaptation and mitigation in poor countries. The administration has said it will begin asking Congress for the dollars as part of its fiscal 2016 budget request.
Frank Maisano of Bracewell & Giuliani, which represents industry clients, said the fund was omitted because it would make a poor message.
"People generally don’t like the U.N., its climate process and giving away money to other countries," he said.
The war at home
While the international piece of the president’s Climate Action Plan was a focus last night, it was not the only one.
The issue’s prominence was clear even from some of the guests who were present. Nicole Hernandez Hammer, a sea-level expert in southeast Florida, was one of first lady Michelle Obama’s guests. By contrast, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) hosted Robert Murray, the outspoken CEO of Murray Energy Corp. who has decried Obama’s climate agenda as a "war on coal."
The president promised the majority-Republican chambers of Congress that he would fight any legislation they put before him that would prevent the administration from limiting emissions at home.
This won applause from Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), the Environment and Public Works Committee’s ranking member, who has made defending EPA regulations a top goal for several years.
"He’s going to veto any bill that repeals Obamacare or climate change or Wall Street reform," she said. "So he is reaching out a hand, but he is also letting them know where he draws the line in the sand."
But Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) said Obama’s overt threat to veto legislation he doesn’t like is at odds with the plea he made in his speech for bipartisan cooperation.
"The content of his speech was, I would say, completely divisive," Johnson said. "There are very few things that we can find common ground on, and he knows that."
The entire climate section of the speech was an appeal to Obama’s base, Johnson said. Republicans will try to roll back administration rules that they believe are overreaching, he predicted, "and the best place to do that is the appropriations process."
Last night’s speech comes at the start of what promises to be a pivotal year for Obama’s climate agenda, even before his State Department representatives arrive in Paris. EPA is poised to finalize its rules for power plant carbon dioxide emissions by midsummer, with a proposal for new oil and gas methane constraints due at about the same time. The agency’s proposal for heavy-duty vehicle tailpipe emissions is due this spring and will target the transportation sector’s second-largest contributor to climate change.
EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy said last week at a roundtable with reporters that she expects to spend a hefty amount of time on Capitol Hill explaining her agency’s actions.
"We’ll make our case, and we’ll make our case, and we’ll make our case," she said.
But McCarthy said that while Republican majorities have many tools at their disposal to limit her agency’s regulatory authorities, she is confident that Obama will use his power to keep that from happening.
"The president has made it very clear the support he is providing to this agency and his interest in maintaining our ability to protect public health and the environment," she told reporters at the roundtable. "The president clearly has our back."
Industry detects Obama opposition to ‘traditional fuels’
Obama did not directly refer to his administration’s new methane strategy for oil and natural gas last night, though he did briefly mention that the United States has become the world’s largest oil and gas producer on his watch.
GOP strategist Mike McKenna predicted before the speech — correctly — that Obama would abandon his "all of the above" rhetoric on energy production and climate change now that he no longer has any elections to win.
"I think this is the State of the Union where he just shaves the beard and comes out of the cave and is just opposed to all energy production from traditional fuels," McKenna said.
"The methane [strategy] wasn’t much, but it was the first step this administration has taken directed right at natural gas production," he said. "So I think the era of good feelings between him and the natural gas industry is over."
But Marty Durbin, president of America’s Natural Gas Alliance, said that Obama should tout the natural gas development that has occurred on his watch.
"He has acknowledged the positive and beneficial role we’re playing in the economy," he said in an interview before the speech. But Durbin said last week’s announcement of new mandatory methane curbs for future infrastructure hints that EPA "had to drag the industry to the table to do something" on methane, when in fact it already was making reductions.
Senate Environment and Public Works Chairman James Inhofe (R-Okla.) said in a statement that Obama should not take credit for gains made by an energy sector he is working to destroy.
"Our nation’s energy industry deserves the credit for the growth we see today," he said. "We are experiencing an energy revolution in spite of the president’s policies that are intended to stifle the development of our domestic resources."
Inhofe also called some of EPA’s climate proposals "a wealth redistribution scheme."
Reporter Manuel Quiñones contributed.