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A Familiar Plan of Action
President Obama's State of the Union speech reiterates his determination to reduce carbon pollution from power plants.

By a president’s fifth State of the Union address, perhaps it’s only natural to feel a sense of déjà vu. How many times now have we heard President Obama declare in major speeches—as he did last night—that the science is settled and climate change is a fact?

Still, for those who recognize it as an existential threat to human civilization, the president’s willingness to acknowledge the issue and put it high on his agenda is important, especially when he follows up with a specific plan of action—even if, again, it’s one we’ve heard before.

“We have to act with more urgency,” Obama declared last night, “because a changing climate is already harming Western communities struggling with drought and coastal cities dealing with floods. That's why I directed my administration to work with states, utilities, and others to set new standards on the amount of carbon pollution our power plants are allowed to dump into the air.”

Those standards on existing power plants, which produce about 40 percent of the nation's carbon pollution, have been in the works for about a year now, since shortly after Obama’s second inaugural address last January, when he surprised pundits by positioning global warming as a top priority of his second-term agenda. The president declared that failure to act “would betray our children and future generations.”

He reiterated his commitment—and willingness to go it alone, using executive actions that don’t require the consent of Congress—during last year’s State of the Union in February. Then in June, the president announced that he was ordering the Environmental Protection Agency to start crafting the power plant standards, which it has the authority to do under the Clean Air Act. (The approach was originally conceived by NRDC, which publishes OnEarth.)

Obama made that announcement outside on a scorching summer day, taking off his suit jacket, rolling up his sleeves, and mopping sweat from his brow. No one was making “so much for global warming” jokes that day. But Tuesday night as he spoke to Congress (indoors), parts of the country were just emerging from the grip of a freak polar vortex. So in typical fashion, those who hope to stifle Obama’s environmental agenda decided to have a little fun with the fact that the president was talking about “the perils of global warming in the middle of a cold snap.”

Fortunately, the president hasn’t let scientific know-nothings (including those in the chamber he addressed last night) deter him from confronting climate change’s very real impacts—which might, in fact, include the polar vortex, along with floods, drought, wildfires, and many other types of extreme weather.

Even before calling for stricter power plant standards (drafts of which are due from the EPA this summer), Obama had taken action by obtaining $90 billion in stimulus funds for clean tech development—a success story regardless of what “60 Minutes” says—and requiring new cars to achieve 54.5 miles per gallon by 2025. In his speech last night, Obama said he would expand those now-familiar efforts, making trucks more fuel efficient and trying to end $4 billion a year in government subsidies for the fossil fuel industry (which hardly needs a handout) and bolster solar power instead.

Whatever the temperature outside, it’s encouraging that Obama intends to keep rolling up his sleeves and making progress on climate change, even if last night offered no splashy new initiatives. “When our children's children look us in the eye,” he said, “and ask if we did all we could to leave them a safer, more stable world, with new sources of energy, I want us to be able to say yes, we did.”

Sounds familiar, but who cares? It's good.

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image of Scott Dodd
Scott Dodd is the editorial director of NRDC, which publishes OnEarth. He was a newspaper reporter for 12 years, contributing to coverage of Hurricane Katrina that won a Pulitzer Prize, and has written for Scientific American, Slate, and other publications. CJR praised his expansion of OnEarth.org as an outlet for "bang-up investigative journalism." He also teaches at Columbia University. MORE STORIES ➔