Environmentalists and others worried about climate change were heartened by the prominence that President Barack Obama gave the issue in his second inaugural address. Obama’s first years in office had been frustrating for those who want to take steps such as limiting greenhouse gas emissions — a frustration that climaxed with the abject failure in 2010 of congressional negotiations over climate change legislation.
At his swearing in, though, Obama’s words soared as he pledged to “respond to the threat of climate change, knowing that the failure to do so would betray our children and future generations.”
Not much has changed in Congress, where the partisan gridlock almost guarantees inaction on any kind of significant global-warming legislation. As scientists become more certain about the causes and consequences of the warming planet, political opponents are just as determined not to act.
But to achieve dramatic reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, Obama doesn’t need Congress. A landmark 2007 Supreme Court decision gives the administration the regulatory tools to proceed on its own, and without the constraints of another campaign, Obama is free to go ahead with tough environmental regulations that were put on hold until after the election.
Obama’s EPA already is moving to limit emissions by new power plants under the Clean Air Act, and environmentalists are encouraged that his second term may yield regulatory curbs on existing power plants and industrial polluters. Nominating John Kerry — a favorite of environmentalists since he led efforts to pass a Senate climate bill — as secretary of State further indicated Obama’s commitment to taking on global warming in his second term.
Former Vice President Al Gore, who shared a Nobel Peace Prize for his work on global warming, noted in a CNN interview that Obama devoted more words in his inaugural speech to climate change than to any other subject. “I was very happy about that,” Gore said. “And I think he will follow through.”
The administration can still expect resistance from congressional Republicans, but Democratic gains in the last election virtually ensure that opponents of EPA regulation lack the votes to roll back new regulations.
For instance, Illinois Republican John Shimkus, a senior member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, says his party will continue to make a case that the EPA should not address climate change “by regulation and by fiat.”
“But,” Shimkus continues, “I understand the law and I understand court rulings and I understand the playing field. I just hope the administration understands the effect on jobs and the economy and the increased cost of energy.”
With polls showing growing popular support for action on climate change in the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy, even some congressional Republicans are willing to talk about global warming.
“As we see a change in our energy dynamic, there is also a very keen awareness about energy production, energy consumption, that demands attention to the environmental aspect as well,” says Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski, the ranking Republican on the Energy and Natural Resources Committee.
Murkowski says measures to mitigate climate change should be “part and parcel” of a “no regrets” energy program to reduce greenhouse gases, increase efficiency and bolster resilience to storms, droughts and floods.
“Raising our energy costs, imposing the mandates, other heavy-handed ideas that are out there for reducing greenhouse gas emissions — they’re not going to pass Congress,” she says. “We’ve already tried that once.”