In his State of the Union Address last night, President Obama spoke forcefully about global warming. He said that, “for the sake of our children and our future, we must do more to combat climate change.” Notably, the President framed his case this way:
Now, 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.
As Chris Cillizza at the Washington Post observed:
That’s about as direct a call for action by Congress on climate change as you will hear from a president.
Since no one expects Congress to act, President Obama promised:
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.
He also cleverly reminded Americans that once upon a time–in the not distant past–top Republicans believed global warming was worth addressing, too.
The President’s strong play for action on climate change stands in remarkable contrast to what many were lamenting as his “climate silence” during the 2012 presidential campaign, and his failure to “connect the dots.” Those days are gone. Climate change activists must have been pinching themselves during the President’s 2013 State of the Union Address. To them, his extended remarks on climate change undoubtedly hit all the right notes. Indeed, as Bill McKibben noted on Twitter:
Strongest thing the pres did tonite was talk about the weather, and link it to climate change. A change from the campaign and a good one
— Bill McKibben (@billmckibben) February 13, 2013
But will that change lead to meaningful action? An early test of the President’s commitment looms, with his decision on the Keystone pipeline, which has become a symbolic touchstone for the climate movement.
In his speech last night, Obama invoked the expertise of climate scientists. Let’s recall that 18 of them sent an open letter to the President last month:
We hope, as scientists, that you will demonstrate the seriousness of your climate convictions by refusing to permit Keystone XL; to do otherwise would be to undermine your legacy.
The President’s strong remarks on climate change in his State of the Union Address has now raised the stakes and expectations for his climate legacy. At the Atlantic, Adam Werbach wrote:
Obama’s speech will be looked back upon as the clearest call for climate-change action by any president in American history.
Today, many greens and climate activists are applauding, but in their own minds they are also surely wondering: Will President Obama heed his own call?
UPDATE: Does it matter if the President is expediently embracing the New Normal frame? Roger Pielke Jr. has argued yes, and not for the better. In a recent post, Roger bemoaned the means-justify-the-end rationale that drives climate rhetoric:
Dick Cheney used similar logic when linking 9/11 to Saddam Hussein. What did it matter, the argument went, if people wrongly associated 9/11 with Saddam? He was a bad guy, and if people supported getting rid of him for the wrong reasons, so what?
Climate campaigners often adopt a similar logic. What does it matter if people wrongly associate recent extreme events and disaster costs with climate change? Responding to it is a good thing, and if people support mitigation action for the wrong reasons, so what?
Roger goes on to lay out his objections to this logic. Playing off a recent British food scandal, he’s taken to calling it the “horsemeat” in the climate debate. Perhaps, but surely he knows the horse has already left the barn. History will be the final judge.