Obama connects climate science and policy in State of the Union

Jeremy Hance
February 13, 2013

U.S. carbon emissions are second only to those of China. Historically, the U.S. is the world's largest carbon emitter. To date, the U.S. has no federal legislation to reduce its carbon emissions. Click image to enlarge.
U.S. carbon emissions are second only to those of China. Historically, the U.S. is the world's largest carbon emitter. To date, the U.S. has no federal legislation to reduce its carbon emissions. Click image to enlarge.

After several years of silence on climate change, U.S. President Barack Obama has begun speaking out following his re-election last November. The President surprised many by giving climate change a central role in his inauguration speech last month, and he followed-up in his State of the Union speech last night when he called on congress to "pursue a bipartisan, market-based solution to climate change," but added that the administration would take action itself if congress failed.

"For the sake of our children and our future, we must do more to combat climate change," Obama said.

While a "market-based solution"to climate change—meaning cap-and-trade legislation or a carbon tax—is unlikely to come from Congress in the next two years, the administration has already moved forward on its own by proposing carbon rules for new power plants through the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Next, officials say that the administration could do the same for existing power plants, essentially forcing coal plants to clean up or retire. Such an action, depending on its structure, could drastically reduce the U.S.'s carbon emissions.

"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," Obama noted.

In his speech, the president defended climate science while succinctly outlining how the warming planet is already hurting Americans.

"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, 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."

Scientists say that the climate change is already destabilizing historic patterns, and very likely contributing to more extreme weather events, such as droughts, heatwaves, and floods. Last year was the warmest on record for the U.S., shattering records set during the Dust Bowl. Worldwide temperatures have risen about 0.8 degrees Celsius (1.44 degrees Fahrenheit) since the early Twentieth Century. The rise has led to glaciers melting, sea level rising, Arctic sea ice vanishing, shifts in animal migrations, and ocean acidification. Further temperature rises could result in the destabilization of global agricultural, economic collapse, flooded islands, and mass extinction among other impacts according to experts.

But Obama pointed to a rise in renewable energy across the U.S. as a sign that the problem wasn't insurmountable.

"Last year, wind energy added nearly half of all new power capacity in America. So let’s generate even more," he noted. "Solar energy gets cheaper by the year—let's drive costs down even further. As long as countries like China keep going all-in on clean energy, so must we."

The U.S. has long legged behind China and Europe on clean energy investments, but, recently, investments have begun to ramp up. Last year the U.S. added 3.2 gigawatts of solar power according to new data from the European Photovoltaic Industry Association (EPIA), just over 10 percent of the total added worldwide. Wind has become a major player in the U.S. with 60 gigawatts installed as of last year.

Obama laid out two new goals last night as well.

"I propose we use some of our oil and gas revenues to fund an Energy Security Trust that will drive new research and technology to shift our cars and trucks off oil for good. [...] I'm also issuing a new goal for America: let's cut in half the energy wasted by our homes and businesses over the next twenty years," he said.

Not everything Obama said was pleasing to environmentalists, however. He touted the natural gas boom, largely due to fracking, as providing "cleaner power and greater energy independence." But while natural gas emits significantly less carbon than burning coal, new research shows a rising concern for the amount of methane leaking from natural gas operations. Methane is a far more potent greenhouse gas than carbon, though it survives in the atmosphere for a shorter time. Fracking has also been openly criticized for polluting waterways and opening up public lands.

Not surprisingly, the president made no mention of the hugely-controversial Keystone XL Pipeline. If built, the pipeline will carry tar sands oil from Canada through the U.S. to a global market. Environmental activists, and many scientists, oppose the pipeline since it would likely result in a massive expansion of Canada's tar sands, which come with a larger carbon footprint than conventional oil. Activists plan to hold a major rally on Sunday to let the administration know in no uncertain terms that Keystone cannot be disconnected from climate change.

Related articles

Head of IMF: climate change is 'the greatest economic challenge of the 21st century'

(02/06/2013) Climate change not debt or austerity is "the greatest economic challenge of the 21st Century," according to Christine Lagarde, the head of the International Monetary Fund (IMF). Speaking at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, Lagarde painted a stark picture of the challenges the world faces when up against rising temperatures.

China responsible for 46 percent of global coal consumption

(01/30/2013) A new chart by the U.S. Energy Information Administration shows how China's coal habit has grown to such an extent that it now accounts for 46.9 percent of the world's consumption. In 2011 coal consumption hit 3.8 billion tons in China, making up nearly half the world's coal use of 8.1 billion tons. Coal comes with a number of environmental issues—including toxic air and water pollution—but the most pressing globally is climate change.

Global warming - 56 million years ago

(01/23/2013) Sandy, Irene, Katrina... Hurricanes are fast becoming household names and have many people worried over the connection between extreme weather and the amount of greenhouse gases people are pumping into the atmosphere. No one can predict for sure what will happen decades or centuries from now as such gas concentrations increase. But scientists have a pretty good picture of what did happen in the past; greenhouses gases were released into the atmosphere in massive amounts at least once before—around 56 million years ago.

Climate change melting glaciers in the Andes

(01/22/2013) Glaciers are melting faster than ever in the tropical Andes, warns a new study published in The Cryosphere, which puts the blame for vanishing glaciers squarely on climate change. The study — the most comprehensive to date — found that since the 1970s glacier melt in the region has been speeding up, threatening freshwater supplies in Peru and Bolivia.

Obama: 'We will respond to the threat of climate change'

(01/21/2013) In Obama's second inauguration speech today, the newly re-elected president of the U.S. reaffirmed his commitment to taking action on climate during his second term. Noting that ignoring climate change would "betray our children and future generations," Obama argued whole-heartedly for a transition to clean energy.

NASA says 2012 was the 9th warmest year since 1880, blames global warming

(01/15/2013) 2012 was the ninth warmest year since annual record-keeping began in 1880 say NASA scientists who cited rising greenhouse gas emissions as the chief culprit.

Soot is second biggest man-made contributor to global warming

(01/15/2013) Soot is the second largest man-made contributor to global warming, according to a comprehensive new study published in the Journal of Geophysical Research: Atmospheres.

Climate change already pummeling U.S. according to government report

(01/14/2013) Climate change is on the march across the U.S. according to a new draft report written by U.S. government scientists with input from 240 experts. It documents increasing and worsening extreme weather, rising sea levels, and ocean acidification among other impacts. Released Friday for public review, the report will be officially launched later this year or early in 2014.

Paradigm shift needed to avert global environmental collapse, according to author of new book The Blueprint: Averting Global Collapse

(01/10/2013) Global strategist, trained educator, and international lecturer Daniel Rirdan set out to create a plan addressing the future of our planet. His book The Blueprint: Averting Global Collapse, published this year, does just that. "It has been a sixty hour a week routine," Rirdan told mongabay.com in a recent interview. "Basically, I would wake up with the burden of the world on my shoulders and go to sleep with it. It went on like this for eighteen months." It becomes apparent when reading The Blueprint that it was indeed a monumental undertaking.

Australia reels from record heatwave, fires

(01/09/2013) Yesterday Australia recorded its highest average temperature yet: 40.33 degrees Celsius (104.59 Fahrenheit). The nation has been sweltering under an unprecedented summer heatwave that has spawned wildfires across the nation, including on the island of Tasmania where over 100 houses were engulfed over the weekend. Temperatures are finally falling slightly today, providing a short reprieve before they are expected to rise again this weekend.

2012 was America's warmest year on record

(01/08/2013) 2012 was the warmest year on record for the contiguous U.S. according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

Jeremy Hance
mongabay.com (February 13, 2013).

Obama connects climate science and policy in State of the Union.