A Defiant Obama Asserts Climate Agenda With Firmness and Mockery

'I will not let this Congress endanger the health of our children by turning back the clock on our efforts.'

Neela Banerjee and Katherine Bagley, Inside Climate News, Jan 21, 2015

In his 2015 State of the Union address, President Obama made some of his most forceful comments to date about global warming, mocking the Republican reluctance to acknowledge man-made climate change and warning Congress against attacking his efforts to curtail greenhouse gas emissions.

Obama spoke about climate change late in the 63-minute long speech. But his rhetoric was blunt. "No challenge — no challenge — poses a greater threat to future generations than climate change," he said. "That's why, over the past six years, we've done more than ever before to combat climate change, from the way we produce energy, to the way we use it...And that's why I will not let this Congress endanger the health of our children by turning back the clock on our efforts."

The president derided as a "dodge" the new, stock response Republicans use to deflect questions about climate change, that they can't assess the issue because they're not scientists. "Well, I’m not a scientist, either. But you know what — I know a lot of really good scientists at NASA, and NOAA, and at our major universities," he said.

Obama's pointed climate change comments were in keeping with a defiant tone he struck across a range of issues, from immigration reform to childcare to negotiations with Iran.

After the Democrats lost control of Congress in the midterms, Obama upended the conventional wisdom that that he would have to grow more conciliatory with the GOP and instead, like a man with nothing left to lose, became more confrontational. Though he launched an ambitious climate agenda early in his second term in 2013, Obama has pushed further in the last few months, most notably in working with China to help deliver a meaningful international accord by December to cut global emissions. He hinted to Congress that he aims to protect that campaign, too.

"I am determined to make sure American leadership drives international action," he said. "In Beijing, we made an historic announcement — the United States will double the pace at which we cut carbon pollution, and China committed, for the first time, to limiting their emissions. And because the world’s two largest economies came together, other nations are now stepping up, and offering hope that, this year, the world will finally reach an agreement to protect the one planet we've got."

The president's comments were also notable for what they omitted. Unlike past speeches, Obama did not mention by name his "all-of-the-above" energy policy that embraces fossil fuels, though he alluded early in the speech to booming oil production. In previous addresses, his comments about climate change revolved around the economic potential of renewable energy. This time, he pivoted to the science. 

"The best scientists in the world are all telling us that our activities are changing the climate, and if we do not act forcefully, we'll continue to see rising oceans, longer, hotter heat waves, dangerous droughts and floods, and massive disruptions that can trigger greater migration, conflict, and hunger around the globe," he said. "The Pentagon says that climate change poses immediate risks to our national security. We should act like it."

The guest list from the White House also reflected Obama's priorities. Seated near First Lady Michelle Obama was Florida-based climate scientist Nicole Hernandez Hammer, who studies sea level rise and its impact on Latino communities. Hammer served as the assistant director for Florida Atlantic University's climate change research program before leaving academia late last year to join Moms Clean Air Task Force, a national organization fighting climate change and air pollution. She is one of Florida's most vocal critics of her state's and Washington's failures to combat global warming.

Environmentalists largely welcomed the president's comments on climate change, although some said they wished for a categorical rejection of a future with fossil fuels.

Sen. James Inhofe (R-OK), chairman of the Environment and Public Works Committee who is committed to halting the administration's climate agenda, said that Obama was waging a war against fossil fuels by issuing pollution limits that he called "unbridled mandates."

Freshman Iowa Sen. Joni Ernst, who delivered the official GOP response to the State of the Union, sidestepped mention of climate change. Instead she focused on the Keystone XL pipeline, the central issue Congress has worked on since it came back into session last week.

"We're working hard to pass the kind of serious job-creation ideas you deserve," Ernst said. "One you’ve probably heard about is the Keystone jobs bill. President Obama has been delaying this bipartisan infrastructure project for years, even though many members of his party, unions, and a strong majority of Americans support it. The president's own State Department has said Keystone's construction could support thousands of jobs and pump billions into our economy, and do it with minimal environmental impact."

Public support for the Keystone XL in fact might be slipping, with a new NBC/Wall Street Journal poll showing that only 41 percent of Americans support building it. The project is awaiting decision by the State Department, and the White House has said Obama would veto legislation that would circumvent the State Department process.

In his address, Obama did not say if he would ultimately approve the project. But he took a swipe at the Republicans' legislative focus on it. "21st century businesses need 21st century infrastructure — modern ports, stronger bridges, faster trains and the fastest internet," he said. "So let's set our sights higher than a single oil pipeline. Let’s pass a bipartisan infrastructure plan that could create more than thirty times as many jobs per year, and make this country stronger for decades to come."