Obama Wants To Build On Climate Accomplishments

President Obama vowed in this week's inaugural speech to address climate change. The comments recevied a chilly reception in Congress. There are, however, steps the administration can take on its own.

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Soon after Monday's inauguration, temperatures plunged in Washington. That may be appropriate, since a major passage in the president's speech received a chilly reception.

INSKEEP: The president said he will address climate change. His supporters at the Capitol applauded. Many Republicans members of Congress sitting behind the president did not.

MONTAGNE: The president can take some steps on his own, but for bigger moves he would need a change in the political climate.

NPR's Scott Horsley reports.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: President Obama tackled a number of controversial issues in his inaugural address: gay rights, immigration, income inequality. But the passage that caught a lot of listeners by surprise was this one.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: We will respond to the threat of climate change, knowing that the failure to do so would betray our children and future generations.

(APPLAUSE)

HORSLEY: White House spokesman Jay Carney was peppered with questions about just what kind of response the president has in mind. Carney didn't offer a lot of detail, except to say Obama wants to build on the accomplishments of his first term.

Alden Meyer of the Union of Concerned Scientists says one of the president's biggest accomplishments in controlling greenhouse gases that contribute to climate change was a 2011 deal with automakers to double fuel efficiency by 2025.

ALDEN MEYER: It will be the equivalent of taking about 70 million cars off the road in terms of global warming impact. So it's a big deal. There's more progress in that sector, I think, to be had. But he does get a lot of credit for leadership on that in the first term.

HORSLEY: The administration also issued new rules that limit the carbon pollution from new power plants. In the president's second term, he could extend that rule to existing power plants - the biggest single source of greenhouse gases. But that would surely face strong opposition.

Lisa Camooso Miller is with the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity.

LISA CAMOOSO MILLER: Any regulatory or legislative action taken has to consider the important role of coal and clean-coal technology. We also believe that clean coal technology is an important path forward for our country's energy future.

HORSLEY: Coal is still the largest source of electricity in the U.S., though the boom in cheap natural gas has been chipping away at that lead. Renewable sources such as wind and solar have been growing, but they still account for only about five percent of the nation's electricity.

The Obama administration has invested heavily in those alternative sources. But when Carney and his colleagues promote that effort, they tend to talk less about climate change than jobs.

JAY CARNEY: Clean energy technology is going to be a huge part of the 21st century global economy. We can make choices now that ensure that we create the jobs associated with those industries here in America. Or we can substitute our dependence on foreign oil for a dependence on imports of clean energy technologies.

HORSLEY: Last month the White House won a temporary extension of a tax credit designed to promote wind energy. But Carney acknowledges major legislation aimed at putting a price on carbon pollution looks doubtful for the time being.

Obama tried and failed to pass such legislation early in his first term. His speech on Monday suggests he's not giving up on the issue.

OBAMA: 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.

HORSLEY: But even though 2012 was the by far the hottest year on record in the U.S., with severe drought and violent storms, barely half the people surveyed for CNN last week believe man-made climate change is occurring. That number is down from 2007. Other polls have shown somewhat greater concern with climate change.

But in terms of shifting the debate on a difficult issue, it appears Superstorm Sandy was no Sandy Hook. The Union of Concerned Scientists' Meyer says the president's best strategy may be to do what he can through executive action, while trying to change the political climate in favor of a long-term fix.

MEYER: I think the more thoughtful members of the Republican Party are starting to realize that just like immigration, gay rights, and some other issues, that being anti-climate reality is being on the wrong side of history.

HORSLEY: Now that he's won re-election, Obama can afford to focus more on history and legacy and less on his own political future. Meyer suggests 50 or 100 years from now, the response to climate change is how this generation will be judged.

Scott Horsley, NPR News, the White House.

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