Obama vows climate change action in inaugural speech

President Barack Obama on Monday vowed to “respond to the threat of climate change,” warning that “failure to do so would betray our children and future generations.”

The full-throated endorsement of climate change action from Obama’s inaugural podium in front of the Capitol was cheered by environmentalists who felt the issue got short shrift during Obama’s presidential campaign last year. The issue never arose during three presidential debates and got scant attention on the campaign trail.

Obama addressed some of his comments directly at climate change skeptics, subtly invoking the memory of the Sandy superstorm that damaged the Northeast last October.

“Some may still deny the overwhelming judgment of science,” Obama said, “but none can avoid the devastating impact of raging fires and crippling drought and more powerful storms.”

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Obama’s call — wedged beside mentions of gay rights and other progressive causes — echoed the moonshot moment in his 2011 State of the Union address, when he insisted that the U.S. had arrived at its “Sputnik moment” and needed to embrace “innovation” on clean energy technology to keep up with other countries.

Although Obama didn’t detail his environmental plans, he emphasized the importance of America striving toward “sustainable energy sources,” such as wind and solar power that generate few heat-trapping emissions blamed for climate change. And he cast investment in clean energy technology as an economic solution for the nation, as well as an environmental one.

“The path towards sustainable energy sources will be long and sometimes difficult,” Obama said. “But America cannot resist this transition. We must lead it.”

“We cannot cede to other nations the technology that will power new jobs and new industries. We must claim its promise,” he added. “That is how we will maintain our economic vitality and our national treasure: our forests and waterways, our croplands and snow-capped peaks.”

Frances Beinecke, president of the Natural Resources Defense Council, described Obama’s speech as “a call to action against the climate chaos that is sweeping our nation and threatening our future.”

Obama’s reelection has reinvigorated environmentalists who want Congress and the administration to tackle climate change, though most analysts don’t expect lawmakers to act on the contentious issue. The last serious effort to pass legislation that would cap greenhouse gas emissions faltered in 2000, despite a broad push by Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., and Republican colleagues, including Lindsey Graham of South Carolina.

Still, the administration could address the issue administratively, including through regulations imposed by the Environmental Protection Agency. For instance, environmentalists have been pushing the administration to expand proposed carbon emission standards so they cover existing power plants as well as newly built ones.

Former EPA Administrator Carol Browner said Obama’s second-term commitment was clear.

“The president deserves praise for giving the climate crisis such prominence in his inaugural address today,” Browner said. “He is sending a clear signal that we can expect strong leadership from him in his second term on climate change and clean energy.”

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Obama’s administration also is facing a big test on the issue, with the State Department’s forthcoming decision on the proposed Keystone XL pipeline that would ferry Canadian oil sands crude from Alberta to Gulf Coast refineries.

Environmentalists oppose the $7 billion pipeline on multiple grounds, including fears that it would expand the marketplace for bitumen harvested in Alberta, Canada. Because the hydrocarbon is typically extracted using mining and energy-intensive in-situ techniques involving underground injections of steam, environmentalists say it produces more carbon emissions from initial extraction through combustion than alternatives.

Luke Metzger, director of Environment Texas, said Obama can make “fighting global warming a central priority” during his second term, beginning with the pipeline’s rejection.

Michael Brune, executive director of the Sierra Club, also underscored the importance of the issue in applauding Obama’s remarks. The group’s members and supporters “urge the president to cement our nation’s position as the global clean energy leader by going all in on sustainable energy, holding polluters accountable and rejecting the dangerous tar sands pipeline,” Brune said.

Environmentalists are planning a rally in Washington, D.C. in February to demand climate change action.