SOTU: Will Actions Follow Strong Words on Climate Change?

State of the Union Address 2013The New York Times reported this morning on a study showing that “of legislative requests presidents have made during the State of the Union address since 1965, just under half were at least partially successful.” If that’s the record with the climate and energy legislative requests President Obama made last night we’re good. Even very good.

Yet, there is a good possibility that these issues will take that average success rate down. In other words, you can still wait with your champagne bottle, the one you might be keeping since President Obama asked Congress in his first Address in 2009 to “send me legislation that places a market-based cap on carbon pollution and drives the production of more renewable energy in America.”

The speech itself was very encouraging if you look at it as a sort of policy pulse that provides a list of the administration’s priorities. It showed that clean energy is still on the table and that climate change is back on the table after couple of years of invisibility. Even the unavoidable all-out, all-of-the-above strategy the President is so fond of seemed to be somewhat less dominant comparing to last year. Could this be the difference between a president before and after the elections?

Let’s look at what was on the positive side last night:

Making the ‘science case’ for supporting climate action – “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. 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.”

This is not a legislative request, but it might be even more important. It’s time for someone to give climate change deniers a good fight and it’s great to see the President taking on himself this ungrateful job.

Fighting climate change – “I urge this Congress to pursue a bipartisan, market-based solution to climate change, like the one John McCain and Joe Lieberman worked on together a few years ago. But if Congress won’t act soon to protect future generations, 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.”

Senators Bernie Sanders and Barbara Boxer announced yesterday they will introduce comprehensive climate change legislation this week, but let’s face it – there’s a very slight chance such a bill would pass the House. It’s important to bring it up, but the President should probably start working on his executive orders. Luckily, he can do get some things done this way, although you can definitely expect a fierce fight in Congress over it.

Continuing support of clean energy – “Last year, wind energy added nearly half of all new power capacity in America. So let’s generate even more. Solar energy gets cheaper by the year – so let’s drive costs down even further. As long as countries like China keep going all-in on clean energy, so must we.”

Driving energy costs down and beating the Chinese – is there any better way to reposition clean energy? I doubt it.

Using oil and gas tax money to reduce gas prices – “Indeed, much of our new-found energy is drawn from lands and waters that we, the public, own together. So tonight, I propose we use some of our oil and gas revenues to fund an Energy Security Trust that will drive new research and technology to shift our cars and trucks off oil for good.”

The idea is basically a good one but I doubt if Congress will approve this sort of redistribution.

Doubling energy efficiency – “I’m also issuing a new goal for America: let’s cut in half the energy wasted by our homes and businesses over the next twenty years. The states with the best ideas to create jobs and lower energy bills by constructing more efficient buildings will receive federal support to help make it happen.”

Energy efficiency remains a relatively untapped energy resource and this commitment might actually help take advantage of the benefits it can generate. It’s far from being an easy task, but as Brad Plumer wrote in the Washington Post: “if policymakers are trying to find novel ways to tackle climate change, this is one area to explore further.”

On the less positive side we had the following:

Continuing support of natural gas – “In the meantime, the natural gas boom has led to cleaner power and greater energy independence. That’s why my Administration will keep cutting red tape and speeding up new oil and gas permits. But I also want to work with this Congress to encourage the research and technology that helps natural gas burn even cleaner and protects our air and water.”

Well, on the bright side, at least the President didn’t give natural gas as an example “proving that we don’t have to choose between our environment and our economy,” like he did last year.

Bottom line: The words are encouraging, as well as the tone, but they won’t change much if the President doesn’t fight to translate them into action. That’s where the real test will be.

[Image credit: Official White House Photo by Chuck Kennedy]

Raz Godelnik is the co-founder of Eco-Libris, a green company working to green up the book industry in the digital age. He is an adjunct faculty at the University of Delaware’s Department of Business Administration, CUNY and the New School, teaching courses in green business and new product development.

Raz Godelnik

Raz Godelnik is an Assistant Professor and the Co-Director of the MS in Strategic Design & Management program at Parsons School of Design in New York. Currently, his research projects focus on the impact of the sharing economy on traditional business, the sharing economy and cities’ resilience, the future of design thinking, and the integration of sustainability into Millennials’ lifestyles. Raz is the co-founder of two green startups – Hemper Jeans and Eco-Libris and holds an MBA from Tel Aviv University.

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