Climate Change: Obama Pledges Action in Inaugural

Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP Photo

President Obama's inauguration speech was broad, as such addresses tend to be, but he got specific when it came to climate change.

In his second inaugural address, the president mentioned the recent wave of severe weather that some have linked to global warming. From his address, as prepared for delivery:

We will respond to the threat of climate change, knowing that the failure to do so would betray our children and future generations. Some may still deny the overwhelming judgment of science, but none can avoid the devastating impact of raging fires, and crippling drought, and more powerful storms.

The path towards sustainable energy sources will be long and sometimes difficult. 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. That is how we will maintain our economic vitality and our national treasure - our forests and waterways; our croplands and snowcapped peaks. That is how we will preserve our planet, commanded to our care by God. That's what will lend meaning to the creed our fathers once declared.

Talking about climate change as a pressing issue is a new thing for a presidential inaugural address. Obama made passing mention of it four years ago, during his first inaugural address in 2009, and Bill Clinton mentioned the environment.

"With old friends and former foes, we'll work tirelessly to lessen the nuclear threat and roll back the specter of a warming planet," Obama said four years ago. But today's mention seems to be the most extended case for action on climate change in any inaugural address in recent history.

Climate change was a huge part of Obama's presidential agenda, until it got derailed midway through his first term.

When Obama came into office, his legislative agenda included three major pillars - health care, energy, and education reform - as advertised by staffers at Organizing for America, the post-campaign apparatus tasked with pushing his priorities through Congress. As we saw, only health care got through Congress.

A climate-change bill, in fact, helped sink Democrats in 2010.

As prospects looked murkier for a climate bill in the slow-footed Senate, then-House-Speaker Nancy Pelosi called a vote on a climate bill that included a cap-and-trade system for limiting carbon emissions. It passed, 219 to 212, on June 26, 2009, with 211 Democrats voting in favor.

Energy reform ultimately stalled in the Senate, and the House vote proved a major political liability: Republican candidates, party committees, and outside groups hammered Democrats across the country for supporting the "cap and tax" agenda, decrying the idea of taxing businesses for emissions in a bad economy. Without action in the Senate, the Democrats' climate push proved costly politically: Democrats lost enough House seats in 2010 to hand the majority over to Republicans.

Heading into Obama's second term, near-term action on energy seems unlikely. Republicans still hold the House majority, and the makeup of the Senate has not changed significantly, meaning the prospects of energy reform have actually dimmed since the effort failed in 2009 and 2010 - when Democrats controlled both houses.

Obama's inaugural address may not signal that he intends to push legislation through Congress, unless Democrats can retake the House of Representatives, but it comes at a peculiar moment for climate-change politics: Superstorm Sandy confirmed to some that climate change is a real, tangible threat that requires immediate action, even though the legislative numbers don't quite add up.