Obama Delivers a Strong Climate Speech Most Greens Will High-Five

What you’ll love, hate, and meh about the president’s climate action blueprint

Well, better late than never. Twenty-five years after NASA climatologist James Hansen warned the US Congress about the threat of global climate change, the US government is making a plan to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and prepare for the dislocations from extreme weather.

photo of president Obama Official White House Photo by Pete SouzaObama once again cast climate change as moral issue,
and then he went further, saying there was no more
time for debating the need for action.

In an impassioned speech delivered today at Georgetown University President Obama (finally) laid out a blueprint for tackling global climate change. This was the president’s first major domestic speech dedicated exclusively to global warming, and in that sense alone it’s a Big Deal. Obama is belatedly using his considerable executive powers to make good on the promise he made in his second inaugural address, when he told the nation: “We will respond to the threat of climate change, knowing that the failure to do so would betray our children and future generations.”

Speaking today, Obama once again cast climate change as moral issue, and then he went further, saying there was no more time for debating the need for action. In one of the stronger closing lines of his speech, Obama said: “I don’t have much patience for anyone who denies that this problem is real. We don’t have time for a meeting of the flat earth society. Sticking your head in the sand might make you feel safer, but it’s not going to protect you from the coming storm.”

Environmental organizations — hungry for presidential leadership after five years of relative White House silence on climate and energy — rushed to applaud Obama. Green groups know they need to have the president’s back as his plan comes under inevitable assault from fossil fuel corporations and utility companies. The eco-chorus was singing in tune today to praise the president’s statements.

Here’s the Sierra Club’s Michael Brune: “This is the change we have been waiting for on climate. Today, President Obama has shown he is keeping his word to future generations. His inspiring call to action is a testament to the vibrancy of the grassroots climate movement and the work of millions of activists to make tackling climate disruption a key part of the President’s legacy.

And here’s NRDC’s Frances Beinecke: “The president nailed it: this can’t wait. We will cut this carbon pollution today so our children don’t inherit climate chaos tomorrow. We owe that to future generations, and we owe it to ourselves.”

The speech provoked one climate blogger to proclaim that she was “back in love” with the president. “This is the speech we’ve been fighting for,” said the young activists at Energy Action. Still, there were a few gripes and some greens will have disagreements with the president (more on that below). Here’s what I think grassroots environmental activists will love, hate and meh about the president’s speech.

Love It.

For years greens have been hammering the White House to use the much-vaunted (and probably over-hyped) power of the “Bully Pulpit.” The president finally made use of that power. The president’s address today was the speech greens have wanted to hear for four years. It was forceful, smart, and sophisticated. There’s no question it was a high-five worthy.

Perhaps most impressive was how closely the address hewed to green groups’ narrative about climate and energy. The president made a clear case that the science on climate change is inarguable. He used a quick overview of regulatory history to swat away objections that reducing carbon pollution will cripple our economy. He underscored that this is a moral threat. And he explained how making a transition to a renewable energy infrastructure and reducing our reliance on fossil fuels can deliver a big boost to the economy. “A low carbon, clean energy economy can be an engine of growth, for years to come,” Obama said.

keystone protestPhoto by Emma Cassidy/tarsandsactionEnvironmentalist were especially thrilled to hear the president challenge the wisdom of the
Keystone XL tar sands pipeline.

The speech today was a great display of Obama’s ability to play the “educator-in-chief.” The president made a clear case that the science of global warming is settled, and that climate chaos is a clear threat to our nation. Highlights: “So the question is not whether we need to act. The overwhelming judgment of science — of chemistry and physics and millions of measurements — has put all that to rest. Ninety-seven percent of scientists, including, by the way, some who originally disputed the data, have now put that to rest. … So the question now is whether we will have the courage to act before it’s too late. And how we answer will have a profound impact on the world that we leave behind not just to you, but to your children and to your grandchildren.

As a President, as a father, and as an American, I’m here to say we need to act.”

Environmentalist were especially thrilled to hear the president challenge the wisdom of the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline. Greens have made this a clear line in the sand for the president, and judging by today’s speech, Obama is reluctant to cross it. If the pipeline will “significantly” increase greenhouse gas emissions, the president says, it will not be in the national interest. The president said: “I do want to be clear: Allowing the Keystone pipeline to be built requires a finding that doing so would be in our nation’s interest. And our national interest will be served only if this project does not significantly exacerbate the problem of carbon pollution.”

The devil, as always, is in the details, especially since it’s unclear how the White House will define “significantly exacerbate.” But this is a huge opening for Keystone XL opponents. The president has basically accepted Bill McKibben’s and James Hansen’s argument that that the pipeline should be judged on how it will impact the climate.

I was glad to see how the Climate Action Plan and the president’s speech hammered away with the simple phrase “carbon pollution.” We know from public opinion polling that while many Americans continue to see climate change as an abstract threat, they are very concerned about “old fashioned” pollution that threatens clean air or clean water. By repeating the term “carbon pollution” again and again, the White House is making clear that C02 should be regulated just like any other pollutant. It’s a nice bit of messaging taken directly from greens’ playbook. “We limit the amount of toxic chemicals like mercury and sulfur and arsenic in our air or our water,” Obama said, “but power plants can still dump unlimited amounts of carbon pollution into the air for free. That’s not right, that’s not safe, and it needs to stop.”

Among other things, greens were also thrilled to hear the president say the US will no longer fund coal fired power plants in developing countries (unless they have carbon capture and storage technology). And greens also couldn’t contain their giddiness at what appeared to be the president’s shout-out for divesting from fossil fuel companies.

Personally, I think one of the most important elements of the president’s address was how he tried to prepare Americans for the fact that climate change is here to stay and will likely worsen. This is a kind of a sleeper, and I doubt it will make it into the MSM headlines, yet it seems hugely important. “Even if we Americans do our part, the planet will slowly keep warming for some time to come,” Obama said. “The seas will slowly keep rising and storms will get more severe, based on the science.”

Welcome to the “new normal.” It’s unfortunate, of course, that we are even in this position. Had we acted swiftly when Dr. Hansen first warned us of global warming a quarter-century ago, we wouldn’t be in this predicament today. But we are. So we have no choice but to adapt. The president’s plan says “the federal government has an important role to play in supporting community-based preparedness and resilience efforts, establishing policies that promote preparedness, protecting critical infrastructure and public resources … and ensuring that federal operations and facilities continue to protect and serve citizens in a changing climate.”

That’s not very exciting or inspiring, I’ll admit. And that’s exactly why it’s important — because it normalizes the idea of extreme weather. In doing so, it could help break the climate denial fever. Some folks will never be convinced — the dead enders, the carbon baron apologists, the apocalyptic Christians who think that extreme weather is evidence of the end times. But when most people hear that the federal government will no longer fund infrastructure projects that fail to take into account sea-level rise or flooding risks, they will get the message that this is a major, long-term problem that we can no longer ignore.

Hate It.

Most of gripes I saw on Twitter and in the blogosphere had to do with delay: If only the president had given this speech four years ago, everyone was saying. A bigger concern voiced by greens had to do with the president’s continued endorsement of an “all-of-the-above approach” to energy.

Not surprisingly, a lot of folks were displeased to hear the president once again give a big plug to natural gas as a bridge fuel from coal to renewables. “Natural gas is creating jobs,” Obama said, “and it’s the transition fuel that can power our economy even as we work to develop and deploy the even cleaner energy economy of the future.”

This elicited a number of UGHs in the Twitter-verse, including this from a Sierra Club staffer (sharing her personal opinion): “sorry Mr. President, #naturalgas ain’t clean.” Significantly, the Georgetown undergrads in the audience were also nonplussed by the gas talk. I didn’t hear any clapping when it came to the gas sections of the speech. There were also some virtual Boos when the president name-dropped the new nuclear power plants in the Southeast.

I think most environmentalists understand that there is no silver bullet that alone can address the energy and climate challenge. We need a mix of clean energy technologies, increased efficiency, and conservation. But the president’s Solomonic “all of the above” strategy is still disappointing. Leadership, after all, is about making choices. Even given his strong language today, the president hasn’t yet made the case that the best and highest choice is renewable energy.

The Meh.

Full recording of Obama’s speech.

Yes, the president’s speech was impassioned and well-crafted. I loved it.

But the plan itself is, in some respects, underwhelming. A close examination of the president’s plan — which I had the chance to review on Monday night — reveals that this is a rather modest set of actions, especially considering how much work we need to do to stabilize and then slash greenhouse gas emissions. Take, for example, the president’s move to reduce emissions from power plants, which account for 40 percent of the US’s CO2 footprint. The good news: The president is finally tackling this, and if everything goes according to plan, his administration will be able to finalize new rules on emissions from existing and planned power plants by the end of his term. The not-so-good news: the plan is pretty vague. Here’s what the climate action plan says: “The President has asked the Environmental Protection Agency to build on state leadership, provide flexibility, and take advantage of a wide range of energy sources and technologies including many actions in this plan.”

This is not quite the all-hands-on-deck, World War II-style emergency mobilization that greens have long been clamoring for.

Like Obama himself, this presidential action plan is, above all, cautious. The no-nonsense WaPo reporter Juliet Eilperin pretty much nails it here: Obama, she writes this morning, “is embarking on a piecemeal approach… with many of the details to be sketched out in the next two years.”

The president’s plan re-commits the US to reducing its greenhouse gas emissions 17 percent below 2005 levels by 2020 — the promise that Obama made in Copenhagen. It’s unclear, however, whether the steps outlined today can get us to this place.

Jennifer Morgan from World Resources Institute, which also applauded the speech wrote to me: “The challenge is that we don’t know the details yet of key parts of the plan especially on power plants so it is hard to say yet exactly whether this plan meetings that goal. … The next months will show how close to the 17% the plan will get to.”


The next months could also involve a final decision on Keystone XL, the initial steps to craft increased fuel economy standards for heavy-duty vehicles, and preliminary action to create tighter international standards for potent greenhouse gasses like hydrofluorocarbons. Winning those fights, both big and small, will require a muscular climate movement to keep pushing for action.

The president acknowledged as much when he said: “Understand this is not just a job for politicians. So I’m going to need all of you to educate your classmates, your colleagues, your parents, your friends. Tell them what’s at stake. Speak up at town halls, church groups, PTA meetings. Push back on misinformation. Speak up for the facts. Broaden the circle of those who are willing to stand up for our future.”

With Obama’s strong speech today, it already feels like that circle has gotten a little bigger. It now includes, without a doubt, the President of the United States.

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