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Obama affirms the 'overwhelming judgement of science'

In a relatively short second inaugural address, President Obama made an enthusiastic pledge to confront the looming threat of climate change.
(Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

In a relatively short second inaugural address, President Obama made an enthusiastic pledge to confront the looming threat of climate change. The briefness of the speech made the extended climate mention all the more surprising, especially after three presidential debates in which the subject was not mentioned at all.

Obama devoted eight sentences to the topic--147 words in a speech of only 1,519. He tied the duty of environmental protection to the economic necessity of leading in the burgeoning industries of green tech--industries his oft-maligned Recovery Act helped to bolster in the first term, if not save.

We, the people, still believe that our obligations as Americans are not just to ourselves, but to all posterity. 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 snow-capped peaks. That is how we will preserve our planet, commanded to our care by God.

In promising to trust "the overwhelming judgement of science," the president affirms both the devastating consequences of climate change and the transformational power of new tech. He also draws a contrast between himself and the Republican pols who continue to "deny" climate change and a host of other scientific assertions, such as the validity of evolution or the way babies are made.

Acknowledging the realities of congressional gridlock, the Obama administration has already begun to seek out workarounds and paths to action that don't involve Congress. The president's willingness to sidestep is evidenced by the 23 executive actions he proposed on the issue of gun control this month. On climate change, action will come from the Environmental Protection Agency. According to The New York Times, Obama will have the E.P.A. use its powers to crack down further on emissions from coal-burning power plants. This will be supplemented by stricter energy efficiency standard for regular household appliances.

With gun control legislation already on its way to the floor, and the administration's promises to tackle immigration early in the second term, it's unclear when Obama will make his big push for these E.P.A. actions. He has a limited window of opportunity. "The time to push big legislative goals will end roughly in the summer of 2014, when attention will turn to the midterm campaigns," writes Slate's Daniel Politi.

Still, the prominence of climate change in the president's address plays in stark contrast to its virtual absence in the presidential campaign. There was infamously no mention of it in the three debates, leading some to believe that it had become a niche issue, just another special interest. Mitt Romney mentioned the subject only to deride the president in his nominating speech at the Republican convention:

"President Obama promised to begin to slow the rise of the oceans," Romney said, before pausing for a 13-second laugh-break, "and to heal the planet." More laughs.

Romney's remark reflects a pervasive hostility toward science among right-wingers. Even Sen. Marco Rubio tried to evade a recent question about the age of the Earth: "Whether the Earth was created in 7 days, or 7 actual eras, I'm not sure we'll ever be able to answer that," he said. "It's one of the great mysteries."

It's no mystery: the Earth is 4.5 billion years old. That's not opinion. It's the overwhelming judgment of science.