President Obama’s State of the Union: Will Climate Change Get Left Out in the Cold?

January 24, 2014 | 10:26 am
Angela Anderson
Former Contributor

As the president prepares to take the podium for the State of the Union speech, much of the country has just been released from the grip of the dreaded polar vortex, single digit temperatures, wind chills and snow, and shortages of home heating oil in the Midwest and Northeast. Does he dare remind Congress and the country of the Climate Action Plan he unveiled this past summer, delivered on a hot June day?

Let’s hope he does.

President Obama still has the bully pulpit. He has only just begun using it in earnest to mobilize the nation on climate change, but it is beginning to work.

The president’s Georgetown climate speech was delivered during breaking news of the Snowden leaks and a Supreme Court decision on the Voting Rights Act. And it still was given reasonably prominent coverage on cable news channels.

Some preliminary research we’re doing indicates that prime time cable news shows discussed climate change an average of about 50 times a month in 2013. In January, after the president’s Inaugural Address and State of the Union speech, prime time cable news shows ran climate change stories nearly 180 times. Clearly, the president can still do much to set the agenda.

The new normal

Despite our cold winter, NOAA just reported that 2013 was the 4th hottest on record for the world. While the polar vortex is a bit of a unique phenomenon, cold and snow are to be expected in winter. What is abnormal is the unusually warm winters we’ve had over the past several decades.

A growing body of evidence indicates that Arctic air could reach into the mid-latitudes more often as more Arctic sea ice disappears. Image: NOAA

A growing body of evidence indicates that Arctic air could reach into the mid-latitudes more often as more Arctic sea ice disappears. Image: NOAA

All across the nation, communities are adjusting to their own new normal. In places like South Florida, it isn’t winter that is challenging, it is the recurrent flooding that comes with higher tides with sea level rise and more intense precipitation events that are swamping existing storm water drainage systems, requiring expensive modifications. South Floridians are intentionally preparing for these changes with their own climate action plans.

California has many local climate adaptation plans as well as a recently updated statewide plan draft, along with the most forward-looking policy on carbon emissions in the nation. But still they face an extreme drought and a fire season that now lasts all year. There’s no question we have to do much more and that the federal government must do its part.

Coping with the consequences and reducing the risks

Mayors and other local officials gathered together in December to begin shaping a new relationship with the federal government on climate resilience. Mayors at a UCS-sponsored meeting just the day before the first meeting of President Obama’s Task Force on Climate Preparedness and Resilience previewed their message to Washington:  Lead or get out of the way. Mayors emphasized that the impacts of climate change are local. They would like to see Congress act to reduce risk from carbon emissions and provide support for resilience planning, but they can’t afford to wait.

But the president’s plan has some other tools to help minimize the damage and destruction caused by rising temperatures and disrupted weather patterns. The forthcoming EPA carbon standard for power plants is the cornerstone of the president’s plan. The transportation sector has already begun reducing its carbon pollution and it is high time to add the energy sector.

The president’s plan also charges every agency in the federal government to look for ways to make our nation more resilient and increasingly aggressive in conserving energy and deploying more wind, solar, and other clean sources of energy.

Still, one part of the president’s June speech escaped the notice of many observers. He was clear to say that administrative actions alone are like “tapping the brakes” on our emissions. Clearly, more will need to be done.

Who’ll join the president’s call to climate action?

The president can and should call on Congress to do its part to pass laws that will complement his Climate Action Plan and enable deeper cuts in carbon pollution. But don’t hold your breath. This Congress would have difficulty agreeing on what color the sky is. The 113th Congress has passed just 58 laws so far, the lowest since 1947. And all too many members of Congress deny the reality of climate change and show no interest in taking responsible action to address it.

Climate change — in cold weather or warm — remains one of the biggest problems of our generation. There are a few moments each year when the president can traditionally command our attention when it comes to important issues. Taking climate seriously — and talking about it publicly — can go a long way toward helping the nation understand the facts and the risks that come with a warming world. Eventually Congress will come around. But for now, the president’s continued public commitment to climate action can help plant seeds that state and local leaders can cultivate to strengthen our resilience and spur innovation and investment in a clean energy solutions.