Obama Speech Expected To Flesh Out Climate Proposals

The big surprise in President Obama's inaugural address was his attention to climate change. What will the president's State of the Union address say about clean energy and global warming?

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President Obama delivers his State of Union address a week from today. That speech is expected to expand on proposals the president put forth at his inauguration. One surprise in his inaugural address was a call to do more on climate change - that after a campaign that mostly ignored concerns about the environment. NPR's Ari Shapiro looks at what environmental groups are expecting now.

ARI SHAPIRO, BYLINE: President Obama's inaugural address spent a full eight sentences on climate, more than any other subject.

PRESIDENT BARACK 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.

SHAPIRO: Environmentalists were surprised and delighted, but the speech never went beyond broad pronouncements. Bob Deans of the Natural Resources Defense Council says now people are looking for specifics.

BOB DEANS: He showed us how serious he is about that in his inaugural address. We expect they'll be some follow-up on that in the State of the Union address.

SHAPIRO: At this point everyone agrees that Congress won't take on climate change. President Obama tried and failed to pass a cap and trade bill in his first term. That was before Republicans took control of the House. But even setting Congress aside, there are steps environmentalists hope the president will take on his own. Kevin Lynch is with Iberdrola Renewables, one of the biggest wind energy companies in the U.S.

KEVIN LYNCH: While there are a lot of people who would like to see the climate policy homerun, there are still a lot of singles and doubles that could be hit that would be meaningful for a business like ours and would also be meaningful for reducing the nation's carbon footprint.

SHAPIRO: The list of singles and doubles starts with a rule from the Environmental Protection Agency. The EPA has already proposed a rule to regulate greenhouse gases from new power plants. Now Bob Deans of the NRDC wants the EPA to limit emissions from old plants too.

DEANS: These are the largest source of the carbon pollution; 40 percent of the carbon emissions that are warming the planet and threatening our future are coming from our power plants.

SHAPIRO: Another item on the White House checklist is efficiency. Susan Tierney is an energy policy expert with the Analysis Group in Boston.

SUSAN TIERNEY: There is so much the federal government can do with regard to making sure that appliances are as efficient as they can be given commercially available technologies.

SHAPIRO: In President Obama's first term, he improved fuel efficiency standards for cars and trucks. In this term he could set new standards for home appliances, like refrigerators and dishwashers. The single biggest energy consumer in the country is the military, and that makes the Defense Department another major focus for this effort.

Putting the Pentagon on a fossil fuel diet could help the president meet his climate goals. Sarah Ladislaw runs the Energy and National Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

SARAH LADISLAW: You've seen each of the services come out with their own plans for being able to either, you know, increase efficiency or introduce new technologies into their fleet.

SHAPIRO: Some military jets are already using biofuels, and the Pentagon has built solar panels and windmills on military bases. There are some clouds on the horizon though. In the military, the sequester spending cuts could derail some of these clean energy plans. And in the civilian world, stimulus money from the first term is gone. That money helped renewable energy businesses like Kevin Lynch's double their output.

Now his wind energy company has more modest hopes.

LYNCH: I expect that the next couple of years will not see the same level of investment that we've seen in the last year or two.

SHAPIRO: Even though the president didn't talk much about climate during his first term, the White House emphasizes that he's been taking steps to deal with the problem all along. One White House official put it this way: After the inaugural, people thought the starting gun went off and we'd started to run. Actually, it's a marathon we started in 2009, he said. The following year, in 2010, the administration announced that solar panels would go on the White House.

Three years later, that's still on the drawing board. One more clean energy item that could be on President Obama's second term to-do list. Ari Shapiro, NPR News, Washington.

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