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Despite Stirring Speech, Obama Unclear on Climate Change

POTUS and FLOTUS at the 2013 Inauguration | Photo: Glyn Lowe/Flickr/Creative Commons License

During his second inaugural address yesterday, in among the stirring sentiments about "Seneca Falls, Selma, and Stonewall," President Obama said that the United States' continued failure to address climate change "would betray our children and future generations." Aides have indicated that his upcoming State of The Union address will reveal some of his proposed climate strategy for his second term. But will the action match the rhetoric?

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Here's the text of the relevant portion of Obama's Second Inaugural Address;

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.

But will the President's "path toward sustainable energy sources" include a carbon tax, which most analysts agree is a crucial tool in discouraging the emission of greenhouse gases? It would seem not.

As evidence, take the President's statement in his first post-election press conference November 14 in response to a query about climate change:

There's no doubt that for us to take on climate change in a serious way would involve making some tough political choices, and you know, understandably, I think the American people right now have been so focused and will continue to be focused on our economy and jobs and growth that, you know, if the message is somehow we're going to ignore jobs and growth simply to address climate change, I don't think anybody's going to go for that. I won't go for that.

White House Press Secretary Jay Carney amplified the President's position in a press conference the next day aboard Air Force One, as the President and his press entourage headed to New York to tour the devastation caused by Hurricane Sandy:

We would never propose a carbon tax, and have no intention of proposing one. The point the President was making is that our focus right now is the same as the American people's focus, which is on the need to extend economic growth, expand job creation. And task number one is dealing with these deadlines that pose real challenges to our economy, as he talked about yesterday.

If Obama doesn't change course and start to push for a price on carbon emissions, then what does his "path toward sustainable energy sources" consist of? One hint can be found in reporter Ben Geman's piece on The Hill regarding a small Inaugural gathering Monday night in DC, attended by Obama's green energy team.

In attendance at the Environmental & Clean Energy Inaugural Ball were outgoing Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, Energy Secretary Steven Chu, and White House Science adviser John Holdren. Addressing the dinner, which was sponsored by a range of alternative energy trade groups and corporations speakers lauded the President's actions in his first term -- mainly permitting 10 gigawatts of public lands renewables and boosting the nation's vehicle fuel economy standards. The clear implication was that the next four years would offer more of the same, though a few specifics were mentioned, such as enacting stricter controls on emissions from power plants .

Though White House climate and energy aide Heather Zichal told the crowd that energy and climate would be a "top priority" during Obama's second term, she didn't offer many specifics. "I am not going to get in front of my boss on this one," Zichal told Geman. "I think you will, in due time, see a really aggressive agenda on the energy and climate initiative in line with what the president talked about today." Zichal added that the upcoming State of The Union address would likely hold more specifics.

Whether those specifics extend beyond what is politically palatable remains to be seen.

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About the Author

Chris Clarke is a natural history writer and environmental journalist currently at work on a book about the Joshua tree. He lives in Joshua Tree.
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