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Obama’s Climate-Change Gauntlet

Inauguration: Speech highlights global warming; Congress gets out the long knives

by Jeff Johnson
January 24, 2013 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 91, Issue 4

Credit: Pat Benic/CNP/AdMedia/Newscom
The President set the stage for action on climate change in his inaugural address.
President Barack Obama speaks at his second public inauguration ceremony in Washington D.C. on Jan. 21.
Credit: Pat Benic/CNP/AdMedia/Newscom
The President set the stage for action on climate change in his inaugural address.

In his inauguration address last week, President Barack Obama outlined his plans for a second term, including a renewed effort to address climate change.

That portion of his 18-minute speech immediately raised the hackles of congressional Republicans, who pointed to the failure of past efforts at carbon dioxide cap-and-trade legislation.

“There is no appetite in Congress to go down that path again,” said Rep. Ed Whitfield (R-Ky.), a subcommittee chair of the House of Representatives Energy & Commerce Committee and a coal state Republican. House Republicans, he added, “will oppose any plan that drives up energy costs and puts U.S. businesses at a competitive disadvantage.”

To Obama, however, the need to address climate change is “for all posterity,” he said in the speech.

“We will respond to the threat of climate change, knowing that the failure to do so would betray our children and future generations,” he said, standing on the West Terrace of the Capitol building.

And with a slap at climate-change skeptics, Obama added: “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.”

But specific actions the President intends to take to address climate change were left for another day.

According to White House Press Secretary Jay Carney, that day will be Feb. 12, when Obama is scheduled to give his State of the Union address to Congress.

Speaking to reporters a few days after the inauguration, Carney said that the direction will be regulatory. In his first four years, the President used a regulatory path to address greenhouse gas reductions through proposals to limit CO2 emissions from power plants and through new fuel efficiency standards to cut greenhouse gas emissions from vehicles, Carney noted. The Administration, he said, will build on those efforts.

In his inaugural address, Obama tied efforts to curb climate change to development of “sustainable energy sources.”

“America cannot resist this transition; we must lead it,” the President said. “We cannot cede to other nations the technology that will power new jobs and new industries.”

Elaborating, Carney said climate change is more than a just problem; it presents “huge opportunities” in alternative energy.

“Whether anyone in Washington or elsewhere likes it or not, clean energy technology is going to be a huge part of a 21st-century global economy,” Carney said. “We can make choices now that ensure that those industries are domestic and that we dominate those fields and create jobs associated with those industries here in America. Or we can substitute our dependence on foreign oil for a dependence on imports of clean energy technology. But the President believes that would be shortsighted.”

The response from Congress was sharp and divided.

On the Senate side, statements from members of the Environment & Public Works Committee, which would take the lead on climate legislation, summed up the division. Committee Chair Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) heralded the President’s speech and announced she will again push for climate-change legislation. But longtime committee member James M. Inhofe (R-Okla.) reiterated that, rather than spurring clean energy technologies, a cap-and-trade approach would chase jobs to China and “away from our manufacturing base.”

Congressional Democrats shot back near the week’s end, announcing their support of Obama and the formation of a House and Senate task force on climate change to focus congressional and public attention and to develop a comprehensive climate-change policy response. The task force will be led by Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Calif.) and Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.).


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