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A Quick Look at the Ecological State of the Union

February 12, 2013 ·

Four actions that Obama can take now, without Congress, to address climate change. Obama doesn't have to wait for Congress to act, and we don't have to wait for Obama, either.

Hurricane Sandy Climate Change Obama Executive ActionsIn the last year, climate change has come home to the United States in a visceral way. During his State of the Union address, Obama should lay out bold plans for the transition to an ecologically sane economy that reduces inequality.

Images of waves crashing into the Statue of Liberty, wildfires engulfing homes in Colorado, and flood water shutting down the Louisiana interstate have rocked the American psyche over the past twelve months.

For me, 2012 meant living through record-breaking heat waves that buckled metro tracks and derailed commuter trains in my adopted home of Washington, DC. Sadly it also meant saying good-bye to the beach on the Jersey shore where my brother and I played as kids.

Since Obama committed the United States to responding to climate change in his inaugural address, saying that a “the failure to do so would betray our children and future generations,” American families in the Southeast were hit by severe tornados and in the Northeast by crippling snowstorms.

Of course, dealing with climate change in our country is about more than bad weather. We’ve heard about how battered infrastructure and closed businesses strain on national and local coffers. We hear less about how climate change exacerbates inequality — disproportionately impacting the lives and livelihoods of people living in poverty and low-income communities.

A shot at a better life for everyone has to entail a shift away from an “all of the above” energy plan that includes sources that poison people, pollute the environment, and lock us into decades of pumping carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. The expansion of fossil fuels and the increasingly extreme ways of getting at it — through fracking, deepwater drilling and blasting the tops off mountains — has got to go the way of the dinosaurs.

Obama said that “the path towards sustainable energy sources will be long and sometimes difficult” — no less because the fossil fuel industry and the members of Congress to whom they contribute continue to undermine legislative action on climate. But the transition to shared prosperity and a vibrant clean economy can be made easier with sustained leadership from the president and his administration.

Here are a few actions Obama can take without Congress that he can highlight in tonight’s State of the Union address to show he’s serious about the fight against global warming:

  • Say no to the Keystone XL pipeline. Without waiting for Congress the State Department can deny TransCanada’s request for permission to build a pipeline across the United States carrying toxic tar sand oil to polluting refineries in the Gulf of Mexico.
  • Regulate power plants. Since the Supreme Court ruled that greenhouse gases are pollutants in 2007, the Environmental Protection Agency has the power to put controls on carbon emissions. This means the EPA has tools to regulate new and existing power plants and industrial sources that are spewing methane, nitrous oxide and soot into the air.
  • Curb natural gas exports. The Department of Energy can reject licenses for oil and gas industry to expand their export of liquid natural gas to countries with which we don’t already have free trade agreements. And Obama could direct the U.S. Trade Representative to withdraw from negotiations on the TransPacific Partnership, which would fling the doors wide open to LNG export to countries in Asia.
  • Negotiate a global climate deal in good faith. Obama should instruct the climate team at the State Department to return to the negotiating table ready to compromise in order to reach international consensus for a strong and equitable 2015 climate treaty.

Obama doesn’t have to wait for Congress to act — and we don’t have to wait for Obama, either.

People have already started. They’re putting their bodies in the path of Keystone’s southern leg to halt construction. They’re closing down dirty power plants in the cities where they live and work, and meeting with neighbors to create plans to make their communities climate resilient. And thousands of people from around the country will gather in Washington, DC this weekend to call on Obama to push forward on climate in his second term.

Tonight, as Obama addresses the nation he’ll be laying the groundwork for his climate legacy.  His comments will also shape how the growing majority of Americans who care about global warming perceive him — as a climate champion or an agent of politics as usual.