President Obama's focus on climate change is a welcome, albeit belated, shift, but will he match words with action?
In his State of the Union address, President Obama brought renewed attention to climate change. He called out skeptics and urged action before it is too late:
"For the sake of our children and our future, we must do more to combat climate change. 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. Heat waves, droughts, wildfires, and floods -- all are now more frequent and 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."
Environmental activists and organizations welcomed President Obama's focus on climate change but underscored that it was crucial to follow words with action.
As Bill McKibben of 350.org told The Progressive: "Well, the president linked extreme weather to climate change -- but he didn't say in any detail what he intended to do about it. Say, for instance, blocking the Keystone Pipeline. The climate movement will have to both push and free him to do the necessary things."
Touting past successes, President Obama stated, "We have doubled the distance our cars will go on a gallon of gas, and the amount of renewable energy we generate from sources like wind and solar -- with tens of thousands of good, American jobs to show for it. [...] and nearly everyone's energy bill is lower because of it. And over the last four years, our emissions of the dangerous carbon pollution that threatens our planet have actually fallen."
Indeed, in 2012 the Obama administration increased gas mileage of cars to 54.5 miles per gallon by 2025. And according to Solar Energy Industry Association, the solar industry employs over 119,000, having generated 13% job growth in 2012 alone, far surpassing the Bureau of Labor Statistics' job growth rate of 3.2% for the same period.
President Obama also boasted, "We produce more oil at home than we have in 15 years." For environmental organizations, the increased rate of oil drilling, in the Gulf of Mexico, the Arctic or public lands, is not welcome news.
As Phil Radford, executive director of Greenpeace USA, put it, "It is encouraging to hear President Obama highlight the urgent need to address climate change, but unless the President uses his authority to put the brakes on new fossil fuel projects like Arctic drilling, Keystone XL, and exporting America's coal abroad, his efforts to move us to clean energy will remain one step forward, two steps back."
President Obama also argued that "we produce more natural gas than ever before" and later stated, "the natural gas boom has led to cleaner power and greater energy independence." And, he continued, "We need to encourage that. That's why my administration will keep cutting red tape and speeding up new oil and gas permits."
Yet natural gas derived from hydraulic fracturing or fracking remains fraught, as concerns loom about the risks it poses for the environment, water, and health of area residents.
Michael Brune, executive director of the Sierra Club, said, "The Sierra Club thanks President Obama for his strong words in his State of the Union address, and we applaud his vow to prioritize innovative climate solutions, including investments in jobs-producing solar and wind energy as well as a focus on energy and fuel efficiency. These are critical steps forward in the fight against climate disruption, but that progress would be rolled back by more destructive oil drilling and gas fracking, and the burning of toxic tar sands."
"Moving the nation off fossil fuels, and confronting the climate disruption caused by the burning of those fuels," Brune continued, "is a matter of such importance to the nation and the world that -- for the first time in the Sierra Club's 120-year history -- we will soon participate in an act of civil disobedience to demonstrate our resolve."
On January 22, the Sierra Club announced that it will include direct action in its strategies to urge action on climate change.
It was widely anticipated that President Obama would use the address to push action on climate change through executive powers in his second term, given that climate legislation was gummed up in Congress, where it ultimately withered.
In the State of the Union, President Obama mentioned the slow progress in Congress, stating, "I urge this Congress to pursue a bipartisan, market-based solution to climate change, like the one John McCain and Joe Lieberman worked on together a few years ago."
He also warned "if Congress won't act soon to protect future generations, I will. I will direct my Cabinet to come up with executive actions we can 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."
Regarding executive authority, Bill Snape, senior counsel at the Center for Biological Diversity, said that there are five executive actions President Obama could take to fight climate change:
1. set a national carbon pollution cap;
2. ban hydraulic fracturing (fracking) and end fossil fuel development on public lands;
3. stop the Keystone XL Pipeline;
4. protect the Arctic from offshore drilling; and
5. seek an ambitious global climate treaty.
Frances Beinecke, president of the Natural Resources Defense Council, too, underscored the powers of executive action, writing that "the single most important thing we can do as a nation to address climate change is to reduce carbon pollution from power plants. These plants are the largest source of global warming pollution in our country. Cleaning them up will not only strike a blow against climate change, but it will also create jobs, save our families money on electricity bills, and make our air safer to breathe. The Obama Administration has the authority under the Clean Air Act to limit carbon pollution from power plants right now."
Carbon emitted from existing power plants accounts for a third of US greenhouse gas emissions. The Clean Air Act gives the President authority to clamp down on these emissions.
Having given his State of the Union address, President Obama will travel, as is traditional after the address, to drum up support for the plans laid out in it. This year, President Obama will travel to North Carolina and Georgia.
Meanwhile, 350.org, the Sierra Club and Hip-Hop Nation are co-organizing what promises to be the largest climate rally in U.S. history this upcoming weekend, which is President's Day weekend. On Sunday, February 17, environmentalists, activists and representatives from over 100 organizations, including Greenpeace, the NAACP and the NRDC will gather at the Washington Monument at 12:00 noon for a rally followed by a march to the White House to urge President Obama to take action to address climate change.
For more information: http://act.350.org/signup/presidentsday
In sum, while President Obama's focus on climate change is a welcome, albeit belated, shift, it remains to be seen whether he will match words with action. More and more environmental organizations and activists are prepared to keep the pressure on to ensure he does.
Tina Gerhardt is an independent journalist and academic who covers energy policy, climate negotiations and related direct actions. Her work has appeared in Alternet, Grist, The Nation, The Progressive and the Washington Monthly, as well as Business Green, Climate Progress and TreeHugger.