President Obama warned Congress that it must tackle "dangerous carbon pollution" in a pointed State of the Union address describing Superstorm Sandy and other natural disasters as no "freak coincidence."
The speech establishes a clear turning point for a president who treated climate change tentatively during a re-election campaign that featured a rare autumn hurricane with record storm surges and a blistering drought -- all coming during the nation's warmest year. It also accelerates the momentum on the issue that Obama began three weeks ago in his inaugural address, according to observers.
"But for the sake of our children and our future, we must do more to combat climate change," Obama said last night. "It's true that no single event makes a trend. But the fact is, the 12 hottest years on record have all come in the last 15. Heat waves, droughts, wildfires, floods -- all are now more frequent and intense.
"We can choose to believe that Superstorm Sandy, and the most severe drought in decades, and the worst wildfires some states have ever seen were all just a freak coincidence," he added. "Or we can choose to believe in the overwhelming judgment of science -- and act before it's too late."
Obama openly waved the threat of using his executive authority to regulate the release of carbon dioxide from industry sources if lawmakers fail to "act soon." He suggested that Congress reconsider legislation similar to the cap-and-trade bill pursued in the past by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and retired Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.), a program that continues to be reviled among many Republicans.
"But if Congress won't act soon to protect future generations, I will," Obama said. "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."
The speech failed to satisfy some environmentalists, but Obama's commitment to reviving a political issue that lay largely dormant for two years, combined with his references to the current impacts of warming, won him widespread applause from those concerned about climate change.
"It's probably the best speech that a sitting American president has ever given on the subject," said Michael Oppenheimer, a professor of geosciences and international affairs at Princeton University.
Carol Browner, Obama's former climate adviser and a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, described the speech in a statement as "a big win for those who want action on climate change and believe now is the time to act."
Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) said Obama's words "were very welcome" but added that "we need to see them backed up by action."
"Between this and the inaugural [address], I think he's set a bar that is very promising," said Whitehouse, who is urging Obama to bypass Congress by instructing U.S. EPA to launch carbon dioxide standards for existing power plants.
'Off oil for good'
Still, it fell short of the specific policies that some advocates had hoped to hear, amounting to "not nearly enough," said Daniel Souweine, a campaign manager for Forecast the Facts.
"President Obama set the lowest possible bar for action -- he did not pledge to stop the carbon-spewing Keystone XL pipeline nor promise carbon regulations on existing power plants. In fact, he pledged no specific actions at all," Souweine said in a statement.
The president did offer some details on proposals to double today's level of renewable energy by 2020, to use oil and gas revenue to fund research in carbon-free transportation technologies, and to erect an award program for states that enact aggressive efficiency measures to help the nation cut its energy use in half by 2030.