Opinion Round-Up: The President’s ‘SOTU’ Call for Climate Action

Most opinion writers back President Obama’s State of the Union remarks on climate change, but many point to a dysfunctional Congress as major impediment.

In his State of the Union (SOTU) address earlier this month, President Obama issued a full-throated threat to lawmakers: Take action on climate change, or I will.

Linking climate change to recent extreme weather, he called on Congress to pass climate legislation, saying that if they failed to act, he would invoke Executive power to cut emissions.

A flurry of opinion writers in The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times, the Huffington Post, and elsewhere rapidly embraced his remarks. But many also expressed cynicism about the president’s true intentions — and none thought Republicans will support a climate bill.

In his hour-long speech, President Obama spent just under five minutes on climate change and energy policy. “The fact is the 12 hottest years on record have all come in the last 15,” he said. “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.”

Those comments attracted the ire of George Will, the Washington Post columnist, who wrote that the data do not support the president’s assertions. But other mainstream news organizations, including the Post itself on its editorial page, acknowledge the scientific consensus that the consequences of climate change are troubling.

Praise for A Mention

In the days after the speech, opinion writers praised Obama simply for acknowledging the issue. “He included a word that had gone missing in similar addresses in the past: climate change,” said Time’s Bryan Walsh.

A San Francisco Chronicle editorial called Obama’s new-found emphasis on the issue “refreshing.” In his first term, Obama had given inadequate attention to the climate, the paper said, describing it as a moral issue “for Americans who accept their obligation to leave a better world for future generations.”

In The Atlantic, former Sierra Club President Adam Werbach wrote that “Coming into the speech, environmentalists were looking for the president to acknowledge the threat of climate change and declare that he would take executive action to control carbon dioxide pollution in the face of the imminent threat of climate change. He delivered on all accounts.”

Skepticism On Fossil Fuels

While welcoming Obama’s words on climate change, some writers worried about the president’s call for faster permitting for oil and gas.

That approach, Werbach cautioned, overlooks “the reality that some energy sources are dirtier than others.”

In a blog post for the Huffington Post headlined, “Mr. President: We Can Drill, or We Can Fight Climate Change. But We Can’t Do Both,” climate advocate Kate Gordon said she doubts dealing with climate change can coexist with expanded drilling.

Walsh, on his Time blog, offered support for the president’s plan to use oil and gas revenues to fund research on low-carbon transportation. But he, too, seemed skeptical of an all-of-the-above approach. “If you believe that reducing carbon emissions is of existential importance to the world — as many environmentalists do — you’re not likely to be on board for any policy that will seek to grow oil and gas drilling, even if some of that money goes to support clean energy,” he said.

At Grist magazine, the frequently provocative David Roberts said the president’s proposal was “an evolution of the same basic policy Obama has been pushing for years: reduce fossil fuel consumption and increase fossil fuel production.

“Whatever you think of that dual policy — a politically savvy compromise, an untenable hypocrisy, a little of both — what we heard last night was simply a sharper, more ambitious version of it. It will be Obama’s climate and energy legacy, for better or worse,” Roberts wrote [emphasis in original].

Will Obama Act?

Opinion writers also explored the question of whether Obama will, in fact, take action on climate through the Executive Office actions, such as regulating carbon dioxide from power plants, blocking the Keystone XL pipeline, or enacting new efficiency standards.

After meeting with administration officials, Grist’s Philip Bump argued that “The president’s threat to take unilateral action on climate isn’t looking all that threatening. White House officials are talking about small steps the administration could take, but aren’t currently pushing forward on the big executive action that advocates have wanted to see: EPA regulation of greenhouse gases from existing power plants.”

Stephen Stromberg, writing for The Washington Post, said that “Obama needs to show that his shift is more than just rhetorical.” He called on Obama to work with the EPA and Congress on the issue, perhaps by enacting a carbon tax as part of a tax-reform package. But Stromberg acknowledged that “it will be hard to convince many Republicans to do much.”

Republicans Seen As Blocking Action

The Economist, too, opined that Obama’s agenda will “struggle to make headway in the House of Representatives, which is under Republican control.”

Grist’s Roberts characteristically put it bluntly: “Congress holds the purse strings, and Congress is awful.”

A Los Angeles Times editorial also lamented what the paper sees as Republican intransigence: “It’s pretty far-fetched to imagine congressional Republicans pursuing a costly new program, market based or not, positing the solution to a climate problem many believe don’t exist.” [sic]

That’s why the newly introduced legislation in the Senate is likely to fail, the paper said. “This combination of administrative action and congressional paralysis has characterized Obama’s first term, and short of major changes in Congress, we might as well get used to it.”

In a CNN commentary, Princeton University professor Julian Zelizer called on the public to pressure Congress to act. “Members of Congress know that climate change legislation doesn’t offer tangible benefits to voters, so they’re unlikely to act unless they feel pressure from activists in their districts,” he wrote. “If the administration is going to build support for a version of this legislation, it will need support from the bottom, not just the top, in swaying and pressuring senators who will be leery about taking on this issue.”

Sara Peach

Sara Peach, an environmental journalist, teaches environmental journalism at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She is a regular contributor to The Yale Forum. (E-mail: sara@yaleclimatemediaforum.org, Twitter: @sarapeach)
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One Response to Opinion Round-Up: The President’s ‘SOTU’ Call for Climate Action

  1. Martin Lack says:

    President Obama is not stupid; and I do not think he is being deliberately intellectually incoherent or dishonest. The trouble is that he is being told by his advisors that we humans can have it both ways: He is being told that we can burn all the Earth’s fossil fuels with impunity because technology will enable us to remove all this excess CO2 from our atmosphere before it can do too much damage. Here, then, is the source of the intellectual incoherence and dishonesty. Sadly, this means that, despite all this fine rhetoric, he will probably, eventually, allow the Keystone XL pipeline to be built.