Obama Tries to Build Case for Climate Action by Emphasizing Urgency

Coral Davenport

Fifteen years ago, when President Clinton raised the specter of climate change in his State of the Union address, he spoke of a “gathering crisis” that would need to be stopped “at some point in the next century.”

Now scientists say that crisis is starting to arrive – and President Obama has noticeably shifted his rhetoric, describing an urgent problem that’s here now, already harming American people.

“Yes, it’s true that no single event makes a trend. But the fact is, the 12 hottest years on record have all come in the last 15,” Obama said in Tuesday’s State of the Union address. “Heat waves, droughts, wildfires, and floods – all are now more frequent and more intense. We can choose to believe that superstorm Sandy, and the most severe drought in decades, and the worst wildfires some states have ever seen were all just a freak coincidence. Or we can choose to believe in the overwhelming judgment of science – and act before it’s too late.”

The focus on urgent present-day impacts is meant to build up public support for a slate of top-down executive actions meant to prevent future ravages of climate change – and also to adapt to the effects of climate change that Americans are already experiencing.

“President Clinton had to use future tense,” said Paul Bledsoe, an energy policy consultant who was a senior environmental policy aide in the Clinton White House. “Obama can use present tense with increasing conviction. The cost of climate change impact today will change the debate.”

Obama made clear that he intends to act on climate change – with or without Congress. He called on Congress to act on the issue, asking lawmakers to enact a bipartisan, cap-and-trade climate change bill. But he did so knowing that such a bill – which crashed in the Senate in 2010 – has almost no chance of success in today’s gridlocked Congress.  

“If Congress won’t act soon to protect future generations, I will,”  he said.

That means he’s preparing to work with the heads of all his Cabinet agencies on a suite of executive-level climate change actions that he can enact on his own. Chief among them: Environmental Protection Agency regulations that would force existing coal-fired power plants to cut their carbon pollution, and a slate of actions across agencies aimed at preparing U.S. cities and towns to adapt to the impacts of climate change, including increased flooding, drought, and more extreme storms.

He also plans to create an Energy Security Trust Fund, which will take revenue generated by oil and gas drilling on public funds and channel it for clean energy research and development (while the White House can use its authority to create the fund, it will need Congress to act to allow it to use the fossil-fuel revenue for clean-tech research).

Using executive authority to regulate the energy industry is likely to be politically unpopular – particularly in regions that depend heavily on the coal and oil industries. Now that he doesn’t have to run for reelection, Obama can afford to more forcefully use his executive authority to roll out such regulations – but he also laid the groundwork for some pro-fossil fuel actions, aimed at softening the blow of new top-down climate rules.   

For example, Obama announced plans to speed permitting for development of energy on public lands – both renewable energy and oil and gas drilling.

Meanwhile, he did not mention one lightning-rod energy and climate issue: the Keystone XL, a proposed pipeline to bring carbon-heavy oil from the Canadian tar sands to the U.S. Gulf coast. Environmental activists have urged Obama to reject the pipeline, fearing that its construction will create a market for a fuel source that will ramp up greenhouse gas emissions.

Wednesday morning, in front of the White House, a group of 50 environmental activists intend to demonstrate and get arrested in protest against the Keystone pipeline.

"I'm glad to see the president, after the long, odd silence of the campaign, ratcheting up the rhetoric about climate change,” said Bill McKibben, who heads up the environmental group 350.org, and who is expected to be among the protesters arrested on Wednesday. “The test of that rhetoric will be what he does about the purest, simplest test: the Keystone XL pipeline, with its freight of nearly a million barrels a day of the dirtiest oil on earth."

Meanwhile , the American Petroleum Institute, which represents the oil industry in Washington, will on Wednesday roll out a new campaign in its long-running push for approval of the Keystone.          

Privately, people close to the White House say they believe Obama may approve the Keystone in order to build up some support from the fossil fuel industry, to help cushion the political blow when he rolls out aggressive EPA climate regulations.   

Jack Gerard, the group’s president, said, “President Obama recognized the oil and natural gas industry as a robust economic engine that is investing in American jobs, generating billions of dollars for the government each year, and making our country more energy secure.... President Obama must follow through by implementing a national energy policy, lifting existing restrictions in support of responsible development of our vast energy resources, approving the Keystone XL pipeline, and standing up against unnecessary and burdensome regulations that chill economic growth.” 

While Obama intensifies his rhetoric on climate change as a tangible problem that threatens Americans today, Republicans appear ready to push back by declaring that the problem of human-caused climate change isn’t real, and that regulations will hurt the economy. 

Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, chosen by Republicans to deliver the response to Obama's address, recently said in an interview with Buzzfeed that there’s “reasonable debate on” the principle that human activities cause climate change.

Rubio, who is frequently mentioned as a likely 2016 presidential contender, played down the threat of climate change in his remarks on Tuesday.

“When we point out that no matter how many job-killing laws we pass, our government can’t control the weather – he accuses us of wanting dirty water and dirty air,” Rubio said.