Obama Delivers a Defining Speech on Climate Change

The best thing about President Obama's landmark speech about global warming today was that he delivered it in the hot sun, standing in front of a building at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., mopping his brow and upper lip frequently. The subliminal imagery was as trenchant as the words.

The worst thing about the speech was some of the advance work: No national network or cable channel showed the address in its entirety, despite its stated importance, and no complete transcript of the talk was readily available at the White House site or otherwise, before, during or immediately after its delivery.

This was unfortunate, because Obama gave a very fine speech indeed. Although it contained no major surprises, its comprehensiveness and meticulous attention to detail were impressive and even somehow moving. No doubt that is why, when Obama paused toward the end of the talk and said, simply, "That is my plan," the audience of Georgetown students spontaneously jumped to its feet and treated the president to a rousing standing ovation.

As expected, the heart of his speech was his announcement that the Environmental Protection Agency will take action to regulate greenhouse gas emissions, first from new coal-fired power plants, then from existing ones. Obama already had made it clear that if he could not obtain a carbon reduction bill from Congress, he would have EPA issue such regulations under authority of the Clean Air Act, as directed by a 2007 U.S. Supreme Court decision.

Obama's climate action plan also calls for accelerated development and deployment of clean energy technologies, including much more wind and solar generation on public lands; attention to energy-efficient buildings and appliances; tightening fuel efficiency standards for heavy vehicles; Federal funding for hardening infrastructure against climate-induced disasters; and, not least, renewed U.S. leadership in global climate diplomacy. The whole climate plan is summarized by a nicely prepared set of visuals, posted on the White House website.

In what was perhaps the strongest part of his speech, toward the end, Obama made it clear that global warming cannot be stopped from one moment to the next, and that the United States acting alone cannot slow climate change and avert its worst effects. He indicated that besides entering into a variety of bilateral and multilateral agreements with countries like India, China and Brazil, to promote adoption of clean tech and relatively low-carbon fossil fuels, the United States will play its part in seeking to negotiate a universally binding carbon reduction treaty. He compared the global situation to what happens when you apply the brakes to stop a car--you have to reckon that slowing down will take some time, before you can stop and then put the car in reverse.

Obama consistently talked about climate risk reduction in a down-to-earth way, calling upon his mostly young listeners to carry the message to a widening circle of activists, to "invest and divest" for the sake of a better future for their children and grandchildren. He said voters needed to communicate to politicians that climate change is a defining issue, and that politicians need to pay less attention to vested interests and more attention to posterity.

Perhaps the job of spreading the word is not quite as formidable as the president suggested. In a new public opinion poll released by Georgetown University on the eve of the talk, 87 percent of the respondents favored EPA action on carbon emissions—78 percent of Republicans and 94 percent of Democrats. It appears that the president, sensing a basic shift in opinion, decided to seize the moment and declare climate change an issue for the ages.

Photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images

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