Obama's Inaugural Words On Climate Stir Cautious Optimism

If rhetorical flourishes are an indication of future action -- and that is a substantial "if" -- then President Barack Obama's comments on climate change suggest that the next four years may provide much of what climate activists have been hankering for.

But just how much the president might do against the larger forces assembled before him -- including a powerful fossil fuel industry, uncooperative Republicans in Congress, and a climate already polluted by huge volumes of greenhouse gas emissions that will almost certainly keep on coming -- remains to be seen.

The president's complete comments:

We, the people, still believe that our obligations as Americans are not just to ourselves, but to all posterity. We will respond to the threat of climate change, knowing that the failure to do so would betray our children and future generations. 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. The path towards sustainable energy sources will be long and sometimes difficult. But America cannot resist this transition; we must lead it. We cannot cede to other nations the technology that will power new jobs and new industries - we must claim its promise. That is how we will maintain our economic vitality and our national treasure - our forests and waterways; our croplands and snowcapped peaks. That is how we will preserve our planet, commanded to our care by God. That's what will lend meaning to the creed our fathers once declared.

Not everyone embraced the President's words. Writing, for example, at the Heartland Institute, which dedicates itself to vigorous free-market economics and an unfailing denial of the prevailing science on human-driven global warming, James M. Taylor, a senior fellow at Heartland, argued that "imposing still more 'global warming' restrictions on the U.S. economy makes about as much sense as losing your car keys in Boston but insisting on searching for them in Los Angeles."

That, Taylor maintains, is because even as emissions in the U.S. decline, those in fast-developing countries like China are rising precipitously.

"If the United States completely eliminated all of its carbon dioxide emissions today (something that is impossible to do)," Taylor wrote, "the only thing we would accomplish would be to delay by about five years an equal increase in Chinese emissions. And China has repeatedly and emphatically insisted it will not agree to any restrictions on its carbon dioxide emissions."

Of course, as Michael E. Mann, the director of the Earth System Science Center at Pennsylvania State University, recently told me in discussing last fall's devastating East Coast storm, the U.S. has something of unique moral obligation when it comes to the climate crisis.

"We have gained relative to the developing world through two centuries of access to cheap fossil fuel energy," Mann noted. "What sort of moral authority do we have in negotiations aimed at convincing them to reduce their own emissions, if we show no willingness to do the same after having had a two century head-start in building a fossil fuel based economy?"

This is in part why many environmentalists and climate activists were rather thrilled to hear Obama speak so frankly on the topic at his inaugural -- though they were quick to make clear their expectation that the president's bold words be translated into bold actions.

"President Obama made the link between climate change and extreme weather and called on America to lead the clean energy revolution," said Gene Karpinski, president of the League of Conservation voters. "His continued commitment to clean technologies and protecting our planet will build on an already strong environmental legacy. We look forward to continuing to work with the Administration to ensure that clean energy jobs are built here at home while reducing harmful global warming pollution."

Carol M. Browner, former Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency and director of the White House Office of Energy and Climate Change Policy during Obama's first three years, said Obama "deserves praise for giving the climate crisis such prominence in his inaugural address today. He is sending a clear signal that we can expect strong leadership from him in his second term on climate change and clean energy."

Speaking in dramatic terms for the group Forecast the Facts, which had been withering in its criticism of the Obama administration's silence on climate change during the 2012 election, Brad Johnson, the organization's campaign manager, called climate change the moral challenge of a generation -- and he took aim squarely at what he considers the fossil fuel industry's role in the problem.

"No-one wished upon this nation the offense of climate change, but from Staten Island's stormy shores to the parched fields of Kansas, all the wealth piled by the oilman's one hundred and fifty years of unrequited drilling is burning away," Johnson said. "As he acknowledged today, Obama must strive on to finish the work we are in, to do all which may achieve freedom from the tyranny of fossil fuels. If he does not confront the scourge of climate change, he will let our nation perish."

Adding to the urgency was a report from the environmental group Greenpeace that provided a sobering backdrop for the president's comments.

Released on Tuesday, the report -- called "Point of No Return" -- sought to quantify the amount of carbon pollution that would be released if governments and corporations move ahead with more than a dozen coal, oil and gas projects already slated to be built in coming years -- including in the United States.

"The collective global warming pollution from those projects would likely send the planet careening over a climate change cliff, causing far more droughts, storms and floods like the ones that devastated people around the world in 2012," the organization declared.

The Obama administration, of course, has received praise for introducing some tough new rules governing greenhouse gas emissions from new power plants -- and is expected to introduce similar rules for existing plants as well. But as Greenpeace notes, America's contribution to the climate problem in coming years will be increasingly tied to coal exports, which are staged for rapid expansion as markets in developing countries become prime targets for the extraction industry here at home.

"Using conservative estimates," the group notes, "the proposed expansion would produce 420 million tonnes of carbon emissions annually by 2020 - or more carbon pollution than the entire country of Spain."

In an email message, Mann suggested that the Greenpeace study was "a bit over the top," but added that there was little doubt that "we need to get emissions under control within a matter of a few years, not decades." In a statement on his Facebook page Monday, Mann also said that there was reason for cautious optimism in Obama's inaugural speech.

"I was reassured to see him reaffirm that facts matter, and that the science overwhelmingly indicates that climate change is not only real, but is already posing a serious threat to society," Mann wrote. "I was heartened to see him echo a theme emphasized in the close my book: that this issue isn't just about us, its about our children and grandchildren, and the legacy we choose to leave behind for them. The devil is in the details of course, and it will be important to see him flesh out the specifics of how he chooses to tackle the climate change problem in the coming months. But this was certainly a good first step for his second term."

One specific that many activists will be paying particular attention to: the proposed Keystone XL pipeline.

"Very glad to hear them, and will be gladder still when he does the first and easiest thing on the list to prove he means them: reject Keystone XL," author and environmentalist Bill McKibben said of Obama's inaugural remarks. "You can't be a foe of climate disaster," he said, "and then greenlight a project that the country's best climate scientists have told you is a global warming machine."