Environment Largely Unmentioned in State of the Union

President Barack Obama delivers the State of the Union in 2011. | Photo: Courtesy The White House

If you were hoping to hear something from President Barack Obama about clean water, endangered species, air quality in our poorest communities, or habitat protection, you went away disappointed Tuesday night: the environment was essentially a no-show in the 2015 State of the Union Speech.

That's not to say that no environmental issues at all were mentioned in Tuesday's address: the President did devote a few moments of his speech to mentioning climate change. But even adding that mention together with an oblique reference to the controversial Keystone oil pipeline, approved by the House of Representatives on January 9, and a quick speculative mention of alternative fuels, President Obama devoted less than five percent of his 2015 State of The Union to the environment.

That's particularly notable given not only the recent 266 to 153 House approval of the Keystone pipeline, but the launch of the penalty phase of the trial against BP for its role in the 2010 Gulf of Mexico oil spill, which began just hours before the State of The Union. (The firm faces $14 billion in penalties for violating the Clean Water Act.)

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The once ubiquitous monarch butterfly, it was recently announced, is being considered for Endangered Species status by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.The new Republican-controlled Congress is hatching plans to restrict good science at the Environmental Protection Agency, gut the ability of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service staff to advocate for the protection of imperiled species, and sell off swathes of public lands across the west. And just this week, the EPA announced sweeping new regulations to control fugitive methane -- a powerful greenhouse gas and air pollutant -- escaping from oil and gas fields and related facilities.

But President Obama's speech mentioned none of these issues. Aside from the aforementioned glancing mention of the Keystone pipeline -- a call for Congress to "set our sights higher than a single oil pipeline" in a discussion of rebuilding the country's infrastructure -- and brief mention of creating liquid fuels from solar energy in a discussion of innovation, the entire environmental content of the 2015 State of The Union consisted of three paragraphs on climate change.

Here they are:

Understandably enough, given the rampant climate denialism in both the Congress and the country at large, the majority of that passage is devoted to persuading deniers that a problem actually exists. For those who already accept that overwhelming scientific consensus, the actual news in the climate change paragraphs is limited to mention of the agreement with Beijing and hopes for a multilateral climate agreement.

The rest is uncomfortably reminiscent of a recent piece in The Onion, entitled "New Climate Change Study Just 400 Pages Of Scientists Telling Americans To Read Previous Climate Change Studies."

There's a bit of a non-sequitur thrown into the climate change passage, namely this: That's why we've set aside more public lands and waters than any administration in history.

Protecting public lands and waters is crucial for helping wildlife negotiate global climate change, but it's not usually cast as a climate change strategy. It almost seems like the President's speechwriting team wanted to laud that habitat protection but didn't want to waste precious air time explaining what habitat protection is, so they lumped it into climate change.

And nowhere in the speech do you actually find the words "habitat," "wildlife," "clean water," or "clean air." The word "pollution" is used once, in the passage quoted above, to describe atmospheric greenhouse gases, but never to describe the particulate matter, volatile organic chemicals, oil slicks and pesticide runoff that continue to bedevil public health -- especially among America's poorest communities.

It's not certain why the authors of the State of The Union Address chose largely to ignore environmental issues, and to limit their scant mention of those issues primarily to climate change. (As threatening as climate change is, it's not the only horrible environmental threat we face.

But it's clear that if environmental advocates want more public highlighting of the environment from the White House bully pulpit, they're going to have to step up their game.

For ongoing environmental coverage in March 2017 and afterward, please visit our show Earth Focus, or browse Redefine for historic material.
KCET's award-winning environment news project Redefine ran from July 2012 through February 2017.

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