What to expect from Obama on climate change

Delivering his State of the Union address, President Obama cited superstorm Sandy and the 2012 Midwest drought as evidence that climate change is a threat on which Congress should act.

Last night, in a forceful call to action during his State of the Union address, President Obama highlighted what appears to be a renewed commitment to enacting robust climate change regulations in his second term, dedicating ample space to the topic in his hour-long speech and calling on Congress to enact meaningful legislation "for the sake of our children and our future."

"We must do more to combat climate change," Mr. Obama told the nation in his fifth annual address to Congress. "I urge this Congress to get together, pursue a bipartisan, market-based solution to climate change, like the one John McCain and Joe Lieberman worked on together a few years ago."

In the aftermath of his speech, environmentalists politely welcomed Mr. Obama's plea for a bipartisan legislative solution; the Union of Concerned Scientists, a nonprofit science advocacy group that advocates for climate change legislation, also praised him for doing a "powerful job connecting the need for action on climate change with the challenge of revitalizing our economy."

But in the face of unwavering Republican resistance to any legislation regulating climate change, the real significance in Mr. Obama's remarks wasn't in his demand that lawmakers act -- it was in his threat to do so without them.

"If Congress won't act soon to protect future generations, I will," Mr. Obama pledged in his remarks. "I will direct my Cabinet to come up with executive actions we can take, now and in the future, to reduce pollution, prepare our communities for the consequences of climate change, and speed the transition to more sustainable sources of energy."

In a statement released shortly after his statement, the president of the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) lauded Mr. Obama's "vision for needed change," and urged the president to use his "full box of tools to strike back at climate chaos."

Republicans were less enthusiastic about the ideas: Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., argued in his rebuttal speech that "the government can't change the weather," and that passing "a bunch of laws" aiming to do so will only "destroy our economy." 

To say that environmental lobbyists would welcome federal legislation pushing a more sustainable energy system would be an almost comical understatement: Groups like NRDC have spent years attempting to push through Congress laws regulating carbon emissions, which they see as the number one priority on the road to slowing down climate change. Their efforts, however, have been widely unsuccessful. Republican resistance to regulations on traditional energy sources has proven steadfast; and even in the early years of Mr. Obama's administration, when there was a perception of hope for the so-called cap-and-trade bill, support fell short in a Democratic-led Senate.

Since then, according to experts, little has changed politically to suggest a crack in the shell of GOP opposition -- even if, as Mr. Obama argues, "the overwhelming judgment of science" supports the idea of climate change.

"There's no way in the world that the current Republican caucus in the House will go along with any kind of legislative carbon control caps," said Theda Skocpol, a political science professor at Harvard, in an interview with

House Speaker John Boehner's office did not respond to repeated requests for Boehner's reaction to the president's remarks on climate change, nor to requests about whether the speaker would bring to the House floor any bill resembling cap-and-trade legislation. The speaker has cast doubts in the past about the role of humans in climate change, however, laughing off "the idea that carbon dioxide is a carcinogen that is harmful to our environment" as "almost comical." There is little reason to believe he would buck party lines to bring forward a measure that's deeply unpopular among many in his caucus.

The oil and gas industries have a long history of political influence, specifically among the right: According to the Center for Responsive Politics, "individuals and political action committees affiliated with oil and gas companies have donated $238.7 million to candidates and parties since the 1990 election cycle," and 75 percent of those donations have gone to Republicans.

According to Skocpol, who recently published a comprehensive report on why the 2010 cap-and-trade bill failed, energy lobbyists have not only kept up their campaign in recent years, but heightened it. She cites Al Gore's 2006 movie "An Inconvenient Truth" as a sort of turning point in the movement to combat regulatory legislation: In the wake of that film, she says, American public opinion was "moving toward taking global warming seriously as a threat and supporting government action."