He's brought up climate change in each of his State of the Union addresses, but on Tuesday President Obama went bigger than ever, flagging the subject in his opening remarks and laying down a nearly 500-word defense of his efforts to address the issue.
"Look, if anybody still wants to dispute the science around climate change, have at it," Obama said. "You’ll be pretty lonely, because you’ll be debating our military, most of America’s business leaders, the majority of the American people, almost the entire scientific community and 200 nations around the world who agree it’s a problem and intend to solve it."
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The issue was a natural fit in a speech aimed not at shaping the year ahead, but at influencing "the next five years, 10 years, and beyond," as the president said. Any day now, 2015 is expected to be officially declared the hottest year since humans started keeping track. But the most historic part of it may not be the heat but the fact that Obama actually pushed the countries of the world into doing something about it.
The Paris climate agreement, struck a month ago, is the first universal pact to slow man-made global warming, ending a decades-long political stalemate and – according to the best possible science – lowering the risk of ecological collapse. Obama laid the groundwork for that deal in a sweeping year of executive actions, previewed in past State of the Union addresses, and recalled in a single, stirring sentence on Tuesday night.
"We’ve cut our imports of foreign oil by nearly 60 percent, and cut carbon pollution more than any other country on Earth," the president said, to applause from the Democratic side of the house.
"Gas under two bucks a gallon ain’t bad, either," he joked.
But Obama's legacy on climate is far from secure. All three Democratic candidates running to replace Obama have pledged to deepen his plans, ratcheting up American ambition and continuing to push other countries to do the same. But his efforts face uniform opposition from the field of Republican presidential candidates. So Obama went on the defense Tuesday night, making an economic case for clean energy, one his administration hopes will resonant in the next general election.
"Seven years ago, we made the single biggest investment in clean energy in our history," the president said. "Here are the results. In fields from Iowa to Texas, wind power is now cheaper than dirtier, conventional power. On rooftops from Arizona to New York, solar is saving Americans tens of millions of dollars a year on their energy bills, and employs more Americans than coal — in jobs that pay better than average. "
The speech even had a subtle shout out for coal workers themselves. It was a terrible year for their industry, and the future looks even worse, as Obama's Clean Power Plan comes online. The plan is the first to cap power plant emissions, a move that's expected to accelerate the coal industry's decline. But on Tuesday Obama seemed to throw fossil fuel workers a safety-net--even as he pledged to sink their industries.
"We’ve got to accelerate the transition away from dirty energy," the president said. "That’s why I’m going to push to change the way we manage our oil and coal resources, so that they better reflect the costs they impose on taxpayers and our planet. That way, we put money back into those communities and put tens of thousands of Americans to work building a 21st century transportation system."
The resulting applause line was one of the largest of the night.