In address, a pledge to fight global warming

President Obama used his State of the Union speech to offer a full-throated pledge to use executive actions to battle global warming if Congress won’t pass a major climate bill.

His remarks at the Capitol Tuesday night commit Obama to a major second-term push on global warming using his administrative powers.

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“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,” Obama’s prepared remarks state.

Obama, before vowing to use executive powers, clears his throat by urging lawmakers to act. He calls on Congress to create a “market-based solution” akin to the cap-and-trade that Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and former Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) floated years ago.

But such plans have essentially no chance of advancing in Congress.

Obama, in the speech and a White House summary of his plans, is also floating some new energy proposals.

One urges Congress to create a new “Energy Security Trust” to steer federal revenues from oil-and-gas development toward research into technologies to wean cars and trucks off oil, such as electric and natural gas-powered vehicles.

A second urges creation of an “Energy Efficiency Race to the Top” for states, which would provide financial support for states that implement effective conservation policies.

The speech touts Obama’s first-term actions, such as boosting auto mileage standards, but adds, “for the sake of our children and our future, we must do more to combat climate change.”

“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, and floods – all are now more frequent and intense,” the speech states.

“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,” it states.

But while spelling out some new energy plans, the speech does not describe other executive-level climate policies that the Environmental Protection Agency and other branches might undertake.

The speech arrives as environmentalists are pushing Obama to use an array of executive actions to curb heat-trapping emissions and help the nation better prepare for climate change.

Atop their list – but not mentioned in the speech – would be the EPA setting carbon emissions rules for existing power plants, which account for over a third of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions.

EPA is moving ahead with setting standards for new power plants, regulations that would effectively be a nail in the coffin for efforts to build new coal-fired plants.

But the agency has not yet acted to set carbon rules for existing plants, despite committing to crafting them in a 2010 settlement with a number of states and environmental groups.

While carbon rules for existing plants are the biggest goal for green groups, advocates have also identified other steps the administration can take.

They include more action to curb emissions of methane (a potent greenhouse gas) from natural gas development; continued programs to boost green power development on federal lands and through the Defense Department; Energy Department programs to improve energy efficiency in buildings and industrial plants, and others.

The U.S., in international climate talks, has pledged to lower national greenhouse gas emissions by 17 percent below 2005 levels by 2020.

A February report by the World Resources Institute, a respected environmental think tank, found that the U.S. is lagging but can achieve the goal without new congressional action.

“[I]t is clear the U.S. is not currently on track to meet its 2020 reduction pledge, however, this target is achievable through implementation of strong new federal measures to reduce emissions using existing legal authorities,” the report states, noting steps such as standards for existing plants and phasing out the use of certain hydrofluorocarbons.

But the mid-century goal of an 83 percent emissions cut “appears unattainable” with existing federal authorities, and new legislation would eventually be needed, according to the report.

Obama’s pledge to use executive action follows a first term that saw new climate policies and several stumbles.

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.