President Obama is expected to launch a serious second-term push on climate change with his State of the Union address.
With climate legislation dead in Congress, green groups are hopeful that Obama will follow the “we must act” mantra of his inaugural address and put the full weight of his executive powers behind their agenda.
“The problem is very pressing, and so the sooner we have policy proposals in front of us, the better.”
Obama has already signaled his willingness to use his executive powers forcefully, laying out a series of executive orders on gun control in addition to calling for legislation.
On climate, the White House took some steps with executive powers in the first term, and that’s expected to be the primary second-term focus.
“If he were to just repeat what he said in the [second] inaugural address, that would be considered a missed opportunity, but I don’t believe he will. I believe he will be more specific about what he is going to do,” said one climate advocate.
Liberals in Congress have urged the president to go big on climate as well.
“From a planetary point of view there is no issue more important than climate change, and the president has to be as bold and specific as he possibly can,” Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) told reporters on the eve of Obama’s address.
At the very top of advocates’ wish list is a commitment to setting carbon emissions standards for existing coal-fired power plants. A move in that direction would begin an all-out war with coal-based power companies and some other industry sectors that say there would be huge economic costs from increased regulation.
Obama, without Congress, can also expand on his first-term actions to boost Defense Department green energy programs and development alternative energy on public lands, among other steps.
No matter what steps Obama takes, environmentalists say the president needs to use the bully pulpit to rally public support.
“The administration is going to have to use all of the persuasion tools at its disposal to make the case for a carbon pollution standard for existing power plants,” the climate advocate said.
Obama’s first term, to be sure, was far from a washout for climate advocates.
The administration greatly toughened auto mileage standards and steered tens of billions of dollars into green energy through the 2009 stimulus law, helping to drive growth in renewable power in recent years.
But there were major setbacks, particularly on Capitol Hill. Cap-and-trade legislation collapsed in Congress in 2010, at a time when the White House had invested far more political muscle into healthcare reform and other priorities.
In 2011, Obama used his State of the Union to propose a national “clean energy standard” that would force utilities to substantially increase power supplied from low-emissions sources. But that plan went nowhere on Capitol Hill and faded from the agenda.
Now, all eyes are on the White House to see how far the president will push his executive powers in pursuit of green policies.
The Supreme Court in 2007 empowered the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to regulate heat-trapping emissions, and officials have begun moving ahead.
EPA officials last year unveiled draft emissions standards for new power plants that are effectively another nail in the coffin for attempts to build new coal-fired facilities.
But with existing power plants accounting for a third of total U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, advocates say the most important step Obama can take would be setting rules for the current fleet.
Supporters of muscular executive action are trying to counter Republican allegations that Obama is making an executive power grab.
Michael Livermore, executive director at the Institute for Policy Integrity at the New York University School of Law, said in a statement Monday that the Clean Air Act gives Obama plenty of running room.
He said Section 111 of the law, which addresses stationary pollution sources, “easily gives the President the power to use market mechanisms (like a cap) to drive down carbon emissions from power plants.”
Beyond power plants, observers say Obama could tackle questions of making U.S. coastlines more resilient to big storms, expanding Defense Department green-energy efforts and boosting federal programs to increase energy efficiency in buildings and manufacturing.
The violent weather that’s battered the country of late — notably Hurricane Sandy — has helped drive Obama’s rhetoric on climate.
In his inaugural speech last month, Obama said “some may still deny the overwhelming judgment of science, but none can avoid the devastating impact of raging fires, and crippling drought, and more powerful storms.”
That speech also made the economic case for transitioning to low-emissions energy sources. “We cannot cede to other nations the technology that will power new jobs and new industries,” Obama said.
On Tuesday Obama is likely to again cast climate change in an economic light — especially as Republicans are accusing him of retreating from problems in the economy.
“The inaugural address, you know it was about climate change, immigration, gun control, gay rights. He ignored the major issue on the minds of the American people: jobs and the economy,” Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) said Monday on MSNBC.