Despite the new Republican majority and the oil industry gunning for the president’s agenda on emissions cuts and the Keystone XL pipeline, Barack Obama will show he’s no lame duck on climate change, White House officials insisted ahead of his second-to-last State of the Union Address.
After using his executive authority over the last 18 months to propose new carbon pollution rules for power plants, an historic emissions deal with China and – just last week – the roll-out of measures aimed at methane , Obama will also likely tout new smog rules on Tuesday. He may even tip his hand on the contentious pipeline currently being debated in the Senate.
But a year after stating the increasingly obvious yet again – “Climate change is a fact,” Obama said in his 2014 address before Congress – it appears the president may have to use the high visibility of the speech to re-affirm science before he can double down on his action plan.
And then, a few minutes later in what could make for a fiery political night on the environment in between talk of taxes and housing, Joni Ernst will take the national stage to deliver the official Republican response to Obama’s address .
Related: White House pushes Obama tax plan as Republicans line up to voice opposition
Ernst, the freshman senator from Iowa elected on a promise to “make ’em squeal”, does not accept that climate change is real. Neither do a large number of Republicans in power in Congress, despite new research released last week showing that majorities of moderate and liberal Republican voters do, in fact, accept the existence of climate change.
“I don’t know the science behind climate change,” Ernst, who wants to abolish the Environmental Protection Agency and scrap the Clean Water Act, said at a campaign debate last September . “I can’t say one way or another what is the direct impact, whether it’s man-made or not. I’ve heard arguments from both sides.”
The Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell, is already arguing to overturn Obama’s use of executive action to fight climate change . “I’ll let scientists debate sources and their opinion of that change,” House speaker John Boehner said at a GOP retreat last week, insisting that the “real question” was whether “every proposal we see out of the administration with regard to climate change means killing American jobs.”
The main oil industry lobby, the American Petroleum Industry, was also bracing for a fight, unleashing a new ad campaign, after spending more than $327m on public relations over five years .
“I do think that the president will sketch out his vision of climate on a global scale and that is why we believe it will focus on the methane issue,” the API chief executive, Jack Gerrard, told a conference call with reporters.
But the Obama administration’s strategy to cut methane emissions by 40% to 45% over the next decade is just one part of a multi-pronged plan, even though, as one White House official said on Friday, “there will be attempts to impede or scale back our actions.”
Obama has consistently promoted an “all of the above” energy strategy, including the use of fracked natural gas. So he was expected to run the gamut on Tuesday – and not just talk about low gas prices at the pump.
But judging on past performance, Obama could take time to re-affirm, once again, that climate change is real, caused by human activity, and already poses a danger to the US and the world.
“When our children’s children look us in the eye and ask if we did all we could to leave them a safer, more stable world, with new sources of energy, I want us to be able to say yes, we did,” Obama said last year.
“Yes, it’s true that no single event makes a trend, but the fact is, the 12 hottest years on record have all come in the last 15,” Obama said in 2013, before a wave of data continued that trend. The president promised then “to come up with executive actions we can take, now and in the future” – and increasingly in the months following the last major election before he leaves office, those actions have arrived.
In its run-up to Tuesday’s speech, White House officials insisted Obama will keep pushing on his climate action plan, in addition to what senior adviser Dan Pfeiffer called on NBC Sunday an emphasis on “middle class economics” . The White House official on Friday pointed to a new report from scientific agencies on Friday confirming 2014 as the hottest year on record as “another reminder that climate change is not a problem for the future”.
“It’s happening here and now, and we can’t wait to take action,” the official said. “We will continue to move forward on this vital issue.”
Perhaps the most closely watched moment in Washington for a potential surprise on Tuesday night – other than the rebuttal from the sometimes unpredictable Ernst – will be the degree to which Obama invokes the Keystone XL pipeline.
The White House has said repeatedly over the past several weeks that Obama would veto current legislation to force approval of the project, though the president has never gone so far as to issue a public veto threat himself. A state department review is expected early next month , after a holdup on the project’s proposed route recently cleared a Nebraska court .
Republicans have pushed ahead, and could vote on the bill as early as this week, after the State of the Union address, despite the president and other Democratic leaders dismissing Republican claims on the project’s economic benefits.
“It’s taken us a while to get going on this bill,” McConnell said .
Republicans do not currently have the votes to override an Obama veto, but it was thought there was still an outside chance Obama could leave open the door to work with Congress on energy efficiency. The question is whether Keystone – and the facts – will get in the way.
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