Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images
In his final State of the Union address, President Obama spoke like a man leading the fight against climate change. He made it a centerpiece of his speech, touted his record of achievements, and mocked those who disbelieve the science behind it. “Sixty years ago, when the Russians beat us into space, we didn’t deny Sputnik was up there,” he quipped.
Obama clearly considers the nation’s progress on climate change and the environment an integral part of his legacy. That squares with the emphasis he placed on the issue eight years ago, when he was first running for president.
Examine his words and actions during the seven intervening years, however, and you’ll see that Obama has not been quite the environmental stalwart he’d have us believe. Rather, his strongest leadership has come at the beginning and end of his presidency, when he had the least to lose from it and the most to gain. On the environment, as in other realms, Obama’s defining trait as a leader has been his pragmatism. And while Obama can point to some genuine accomplishments, the forces that have shaped his environmental record—and rhetoric, for that matter—have been largely outside his control.
In 2008, then–Sen. Obama put climate change at the forefront of his presidential campaign. The centerpiece of his energy plan was a cap-and-trade system that he said would cut U.S. carbon dioxide emissions 80 percent below 1990 levels by 2050. The tough talk continued after he was elected. “Now is the time to confront this challenge once and for all,” he said in November 2008. “Delay is no longer an option. Denial is no longer an acceptable response.”
Climate moved to the back burner, however, when Obama chose health care as his first big policy battle. Eventually, as the Obamacare fight boiled over and the economy failed to gain steam, it disappeared from the stove entirely. By 2012, Obama had grown so weak on the issue that when Mitt Romney accused him in a debate of not being “Mr. Oil or Mr. Gas or Mr. Coal,” the president defended his fossil-fuel bona fides. Even after his re-election, Obama declined to push hard for climate legislation, noting that it “would involve making some tough political choices”—choices he was evidently unwilling to make. Greens were left disillusioned.
By his 2013 State of the Union address, Obama was beginning to quietly map out a new, more modest way forward. Even as he vaguely floated a “bipartisan, market-based solution” to climate change, which he knew would go nowhere in the Republican Congress, Obama promised to take action himself if the legislature wouldn’t. It was not an empty promise. In September 2013, the Environmental Protection Agency proposed carbon emission standards for new power plants, and Obama made them a priority in his 2014 State of the Union address. In August, he unveiled a 1,560-page “clean power plan” that included regulations on existing power plants, establishing compliance mechanisms that looked a lot like cap-and-trade.
Obama’s rhetoric on the climate over the course of his second term gradually regained the force and confidence of his 2008 stump speeches. “We have to act with more urgency,” he said in his 2014 State of the Union. Asked in a June 2014 interview whether he doesn’t sometimes want to “go off like a Roman candle” on those who deny that the climate is changing, he said, “Uh, yeah,” and laughed as though it were obvious. “Science is science,” he added. And it was in his 2015 State of the Union speech that the president referred to climate change as the greatest threat to future generations.
On Tuesday, in his final State of the Union address, Obama talked climate more than he ever has—and with more conviction. He began by laying out “four big questions that we as a country have to answer,” the second of which was the challenge of confronting climate change:
Look, if anybody still wants to dispute the science around climate change, have at it. You’ll be pretty lonely, because you’ll be debating our military, most of America’s business leaders, the majority of the American people, almost the entire scientific community, and 200 nations around the world who agree it’s a problem and intend to solve it.
Obama went on to tout the country’s investments in clean energy, which have resulted in a boom in solar and wind power, with the solar industry now employing more Americans than coal does. He also boasted that the country has “cut our imports of foreign oil by nearly 60 percent.” He paused, then added with a smile: “Gas under 2 bucks a gallon ain’t bad either.”
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