President Obama put it very well in his State of the Union speech Tuesday night:
"...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."
The clear statements on the reality of climate change, on the need for action, and on the president's determination to act if Congress doesn't are encouraging. The know-nothingism of congressional Republicans, and their efforts to block any and all legislation on climate change, received a well-deserved slap in last night's speech.
Polls indicate a large and growing majority of people want the president to take action, and think Congress should also take action. And the number of people who understand this is a very important issue is increasing. Republicans, on this as on many issues, take every opportunity to obstruct action, against the wishes of that majority. The droughts, wildfires, and superstorms cited by Obama are playing a role in the shift of public opinion, as does the president's advocacy.
Environmentalists have been waiting for a forthright and prominent signal from Obama that his administration will take decisive action on climate change. The State of the Union speech offered that, mixed with less-than-positive mentions of increased oil and natural gas production.
Obama's promise to take executive action to drive down the costs of solar and wind power and to lessen delays in energy development due to unnecessary red tape (though he was mostly referring to red tape about oil and gas development) are positive, as is his call to increase funding for research and development. The role the federal government can play using its purchasing power to increase the market for solar panels, wind generators, and higher mileage vehicles is under-appreciated. Increasing government acquisition can help create a market large enough to create large economies of scale. This is a powerful force that the entire society would benefit from. As well, greater utilization of renewable energy will, in the long run, save the taxpayers money.
Also important was Obama's call for greater energy efficiency in our buildings. Retrofitting existing buildings can create millions of jobs and save money for home and building owners. Holding new buildings to higher standards can put us on a path to seriously decrease greenhouse gas emissions in the future. Energy wasted due to inadequate design and insulation in buildings accounts for a huge proportion of our energy use, so steps toward conservation can help considerably in our efforts to protect against the worst ravages of climate change.
Obama overstated several accomplishments on the environment, saying that the U.S. had doubled the gas mileage of automobiles and the amount of energy generated by renewable solar and wind power. The doubling of renewable energy is true, but it is still a fraction of what is needed. The automobile mileage changes are for cars produced from here on out, not for actual cars burning actual gas on actual highways. Also, he claimed that we have decreased our greenhouse gas emissions. This is true only to the extent that economic activity has decreased due to the Great Recession and the slow pickup in economic activity since.
No one knows yet what action his administration will take on the controversial Keystone XL pipeline project. A large demonstration will take place on Feb. 17 in Washington D.C., initiated by 350.org, calling for cancellation of the project.
Obama also argued that the increased production of natural gas in the U.S. is replacing some of the higher-emission fossil fuels, decreasing costs to consumers, and lessening our reliance on foreign oil. This is all true, but seriously reducing our greenhouse gas emissions requires a much quicker, more fundamental shift away from fossil fuels as the source of our energy.
But many environmentalists are encouraged by the fact that Obama is now starting to discuss climate change more, is advocating real steps to regulate carbon dioxide emissions, and is promising executive action in the face of Republican congressional denial (and opposition from coal-producing state Democrats).
Photo: Obama comforts the victims of Superstorm Sandy in Brigantine, New Jersey. The storm was just one more product of climate change, which was a significant focus of the president's State of the Union address. Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP