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State of the Union: Obama Vows to Step Up on Climate Change if Congress Doesn't


Having mentioned climate change in his inaugural address, President Barack Obama devoted a brief section to the crisis in his State of the Union message on February 12. Though cloaked in talk of energy independence, it did put the issue of Mother Earth’s changing climate squarely on the shoulders of Congress and the presidency.

The news stories are legion by now: melting ice and liquefying glaciers; fierce nor’easters and hurricanes moving farther north than ever before; drought in the southwest and the heartland; dropping water levels in the Great Lakes and major rivers; increased wildfires, with more to come; certain diseases increasing in both humans and animals; rising waters in the Pacific Northwest and in Alaska, and a proliferation of greenhouse gases fueled partly by melting permafrost.

“Now, it’s true that no single event makes a trend,” President Barack Obama said in his State of the Union speech on February 12. “But the fact is, the 12 hottest years on record have all come in the last 15. Heat waves, droughts, wildfires, 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.”

He exhorted Congress to put partisan politics aside and tackle the issues emerging in this changing environment.

“I urge this Congress to get together—pursue a bipartisan, market-based solution to climate change, like the one John McCain and Joe Lieberman worked on together a few years ago,” Obama said. “But 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.”

Environmentalists lauded the speech and its attention to climate change, citing the decisive nature of the actions that Obama will take if Congress sits by. But it was not lost on them that his speech, by focusing mainly on energy independence, left open the door to approval of the Keystone XL pipeline.

“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,” Sierra Club executive director Michael Brune said in a statement.

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,” Brune said. “President Obama has the authority to create a robust clean energy economy and lead the world on climate solutions. He also has the executive power to reject the dirty Keystone XL pipeline, stop natural gas exports, reject trade agreements that put our air and water at risk, put an end to destructive Arctic drilling, and hold polluters accountable for their pollution. He has our full support to wield that power, and we will push him every step of the way to ensure a safer future for Americans.”

The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) noted the way Obama made adapting to and preventing climate change a cornerstone of economic policy. NRDC President Frances Beinecke applauded Obama’s “assertive agenda for reducing dangerous carbon pollution more broadly, promising to lead a national effort to cut energy waste in half by 2030 and advance our use of renewable power,” she said in a statement.

“Unchecked climate change endangers our environment, our communities, our health, and our economy,” Beinecke added. “It demands a comprehensive approach, and President Obama laid out some of the most critical elements of such an approach on Tuesday night.”