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After the State of the Union, What the President (and We) Can Do on Climate

The 2013 State of the Union address could be a watershed moment in the U.S. transition to a clean energy economy.

Yesterday’s State of the Union address could go down as a watershed moment in America’s transition to a clean energy economy. Two years ago, the president wouldn’t mention climate change. Last night, he spoke honestly about the issue to 40 million people and vowed that if “Congress won’t act soon to protect future generations, I will.” The question is: Just what can President Obama do, and what will it mean for our economy and energy system?


Recent experience provides some clues. Even without a Congressional climate bill, the United States has doubled renewable electricity production over the past four years, and reduced carbon emissions to a 20-year low, even as the economy has rebounded from the worst recession since the Great Depression. We’ve also built substantial new energy industries. Solar power alone now accounts for 119,000 American jobs, spread across 5,600 companies in all 50 states. Economy-wide, there are some 2.7 million green jobs, and green job sectors are growing faster than other parts of the economy.
Some of these accomplishments are directly attributable to Obama Administration policies. The stimulus package, for instance, injected more cash into green investments than any piece of legislation in American history. New fuel efficiency standards will likewise save tens of billions of barrels of oils in the coming years. Other important pieces of the policy puzzle, such as state level Renewable Portfolio Standards, have come from different parts of the government, but still demonstrate the same principle that there are many ways to move forward on climate and energy, even in a tough political moment.
And so we come back to the present moment. Obama has again called on Congress to pass a big cap-and-trade bill, but also knows that he will be more successful in producing change through a variety of smaller initiatives.
In his speech and an accompanying policy document, the president put forward several specific proposals he will pursue in his second term, including calling for the Production Tax Credit for wind energy to be made permanent and refundable (a very big deal) and working directly with states to incentivize energy efficiency. He also issued a broader challenge to legislators, noting that he has directed his cabinet to “identify additional executive actions ... which will be assessed if Congress does not take action.”
What would these executive actions look like? Perhaps the administration working through the EPA to tighten regulations on greenhouse gases—a major move that would put a substantial dent in the coal-fired power system. Maybe Obama using his convening powers to bring together a high-level commission on climate change and energy, so that we could shift from a debate about whether climate change is real to a debate about all the ways we can solve the problem. Or the president could slow the pace of fossil fuel development by taking a stand on a big project like the Keystone XL.
This last example highlights an important point about the opportunity of the next four years. The president’s ability to pursue aggressive executive actions depends on the strength of the popular coalition behind him. Obama is going to use the bully pulpit to take his energy agenda to the public. It’s up to us to show Obama that we want him to exercise the full power of his office, as aggressively as Lincoln on slavery or F.D.R. on reviving the American economy after the Great Depression.
So, let’s take Obama up on his promise of action. Let’s use our money and let’s use our feet. We need to weaken fossil fuel interests through divestment campaigns like that being organized by 350.org and invest in renewable energy through platforms like Mosaic. We also need to turn out. This Sunday, Washington D.C. will host what will likely be the largest climate rally in U.S. history, with a specific goal of stopping the Keystone XL pipeline. It’s a great moment to let Obama know: If he’s ready to take on Congress, or the fossil fuel industry, or both, we’ve got his back.

This month, challenge a neighbor to GOOD's energy smackdown. Find a neighbor with a household of roughly the same square footage and see who can trim their power bill the most. Throughout February, we'll share ideas and resources for shrinking your household carbon footprint, so join the conversation at good.is/energy.

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Original solar panel image via Shutterstock\n
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