In his final State of the Union address to Congress and the American people on Tuesday night, President Barack Obama looked beyond his two terms in the White House to a future where climate deniers will be “pretty lonely” as the United States leads the world in accelerating the transition away from fossil fuels to a renewable energy economy. The following quote sums up his most candid speech to date: “Sixty years ago, when the Russians beat us into space, we didn’t deny Sputnik was up there. We didn’t argue about the science, or shrink our research and development budget. We built a space program almost overnight, and twelve years later, we were walking on the moon.”
The president has consistently championed clean power and stood up for climate science since taking office. In fact, during his first State of the Union address in 2010 he mentioned the climate three times, one less than last night, and talked about clean energy a whopping 10 times as opposed to only twice on Tuesday.
However, a notable difference from previous addresses was his call to move away from what he described as “dirty energy.”
The administration’s policy for years has been to promote a so-called “all of the above” energy strategy that included more domestic extraction and production of oil and natural gas. In calling for a transition away from fossil fuels to renewables like wind and solar, the president sounded a lot like Sen. Bernie Sanders, who is running as a Democrat in the 2016 presidential election and who consistently has been calling for a transition away from fossil fuels to energy efficiency and sustainable energy.
What the president did not call for specifically, and given the gridlocked reality of a divided Congress with a Republican majority will not be legislatively possible the rest of his second term, is a carbon fee and dividend, something that climate scientist Dr. James Hansen says is the most effective way to bring down emissions as rapidly as possible in order to prevent catastrophic climate change.
But the president did remind us of perhaps two of his biggest environmental accomplishments that could be seen as the turning points for the transition to a clean energy economy and solving global warming. Obama said the $90 billion clean energy investment that was included in the Recovery Act was “the single biggest investment in clean energy in our history.” He also touted the Paris climate agreement, saying that American leadership brought “nearly 200 nations to the most ambitious agreement in history to fight climate change.”
If you take into account the record levels of clean energy investment and research, the Paris climate agreement, the Clean Power Plan, the rejection of the Keystone XL pipeline and the president consistently talking about climate change over the past seven years, including last night, there can be no doubt that President Obama is the most consequential president in American history in terms of climate change and clean energy. Hopefully the next occupant of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue will build upon and improve upon Obama’s legacy and, to repeat what the president said, “accelerate the transition away from dirty energy.”
Here is more of what the president said last night in his own words:
“Look, if anybody still wants to dispute the science around climate change, have at it. 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.
But even if the planet wasn’t at stake; even if 2014 wasn’t the warmest year on record — until 2015 turned out even hotter — why would we want to pass up the chance for American businesses to produce and sell the energy of the future?”
“Now we’ve got to accelerate the transition away from dirty energy. Rather than subsidize the past, we should invest in the future — especially in communities that rely on fossil fuels. 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.”
“Seven years ago, we made the single biggest investment in clean energy in our history. 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. We’re taking steps to give homeowners the freedom to generate and store their own energy — something environmentalists and Tea Partiers have teamed up to support. Meanwhile, we’ve cut our imports of foreign oil by nearly sixty percent, and cut carbon pollution more than any other country on Earth.”
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