Climate and the environment in tonight's State of the Union

By Margie Alt
Executive Director, Environment America

In his State of the Union speech tonight, President Obama is likely to tout the progress the U.S. has made tackling global warming, and talk about next steps to cement his legacy on the greatest environmental challenge of our time. He’s said he plans to talk not only about the year ahead, but also about “what we all need to do together in the years to come…to build a stronger, better, more prosperous America for our kids.” Of course, safeguarding our air, water, and natural areas is critical to making our country stronger. Here's our take on some of the environmental initiatives the president could cover in his final big speech. 

Climate change and clean energy

President Obama has done more than any other president to tackle the threat of global warming, and during his administration we’ve seen huge leaps forward on clean energy. The president deserves to tout his accomplishments tonight. To wit: the amount of electricity produced by pollution-free wind energy has more than tripled since 2008. His administration has aggressively pursued offshore wind, helping the nation’s first such project begin construction off Rhode Island’s coast in 2015. Solar power has quadrupled since 2010, and with prices dropping rapidly, it’s available to more homes, businesses, and communities than ever before. From promoting wind, solar, and energy efficiency as part of the 2009 stimulus package to aggressively supporting Congress’s effort to renew critical tax credits last month, the Obama administration has made clean energy a priority in negotiations with lawmakers. Given all the administration’s clean energy accomplishments, it’s fitting that one of the First Lady’s guest’s includes a solar entrepreneur whose focus is installing solar panels in low-income areas of Washington, D.C. 

In his first term the president nearly doubled fuel efficiency standards for passenger cars and trucks, and set the first-ever carbon pollution standards for heavy trucks and buses, locking in tens of millions of metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions reductions. But the president’s crowning climate achievements culminated in the last year. First his administration finalized the Clean Power Plan, which sets carbon pollution limits on power plants, the largest single source of greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S. Last month, he and his administration helped lead nearly 200 nations to reach agreement in Paris to limit global warming to no more than 2 degrees Celsius, the benchmark scientists say is necessary to avoid climate catastrophe.

These actions, either individually or taken together, won’t stem the climate crisis, but there’s no question they chart the right path. In the next year, we’ll help defend the landmark progress the Obama administration has made on climate, work with state leaders to implement the Clean Power Plan, push for tougher measures to curb pollution from airplanes, heavy-duty trucks and buses, and gas operations, and above all, work to transition away from fossil fuels to a future powered by 100 percent clean, renewable energy sources. 

The President has created a very impressive legacy on climate, yet we all know that the problem is too profound and too urgent for a victory lap. Together we must keep pressing forward to get off fossil fuels and transition the nation to the 100 percent clean energy economy the climate crisis demands and future generations deserve.

 

Protecting our treasured coast and natural areas

During his term President Obama has not been shy about his support for increasing domestic energy supply including more drilling and fracking. He has often boasted that the U.S. now produces more oil than it imports. To the president’s credit, he did take a critical step in protecting sensitive environments from fossil fuel development when in October he canceled potential drilling leases in the Arctic

President Obama is not likely to announce that he is reversing his administration’s current proposal to open up parts of the Arctic Ocean and the southern Atlantic Coast to drilling (though we’ll celebrate if he does). But the proposal may get reference in the Republican response delivered by South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley. A proponent of drilling off S.C. and the rest of the southern Atlantic coast, Gov. Haley stands in stark contrast to a bipartisan throng of coastal businesses, local government leaders, and scores of citizens who oppose Atlantic drilling and want to protect their beaches and their local economies, which depend on a clean coast to thrive.   

For the sake of our beaches and coastal economies in the short term, and the safety of our climate in the long term, the president should drop his plan for drilling in the Arctic and the Atlantic—a proposal that’s drawn vocal bipartisan opposition from up and down the East Coast. 

Transitioning away from fossil fuels and keeping it in the ground

Last fall, scientists said that burning all of the world’s remaining fossil fuels would melt all of Antarctica, raising sea levels by more than 160 feet.  And nearly a year ago, a study in the journal Nature showed us that if we are to stave off the worst of the climate crisis we must keep the vast majority of the world’s fossil fuels in the ground. The U.S. cannot be an exception. 

The Obama administration has been uneven in following this science. He’s proposed more drilling off our coast, and has continued to pursue fracking, drilling, and mining on public lands. On the other hand, in November the president dealt a landmark, knock out blow to the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline, and encouraged climate activists in so doing when he said we need “to keep some fossil fuels in the ground” to avoid dangerous global warming.

We hope the president will use similar rhetoric tonight about “keeping fossil fuels in the ground,” but rhetoric, of course, isn’t enough. In the next year we’ll urge Obama’s Bureau of Land Management to increase royalty payments for coal leases to provide a disincentive for mining on public lands. At the same time, we’ll continue to urge the administration to cancel all fossil fuel leases in federal ocean waters and on public lands to protect our climate. 

If we want to follow climate science and protect quality of life for the next generation, we can’t drill, frack, and mine our way into the future. To keep beautiful places beautiful and prevent the worst impacts of climate change, we need to keep it in the ground. 

Celebrating our parks and open landscapes

With the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service happening this August, the president may touch upon the importance of setting aside precious landscapes for the long-term enjoyment of all, not the short term gains of a few special interests, a concept that author Wallace Stegner called the “best idea [America] ever had.” 

From Yosemite to the Shenandoah National Park, from Mt. Rainier to the Everglades, our national parks and other public lands give us the chance to hike, boat, fish and explore nature. Yet too many prized natural areas lack protection from development, drilling, mining, logging and other harms. The president has already created 19 natural and historic national monuments and protected 260 million acres of precious seascapes and landscapes, more than any other president. We’re working to convince the administration to designate the Grand Canyon Watershed, the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, and marine canyons off New England’s coast, among other treasured areas, as national monuments before he leaves office. 

At the same time, we’re working to convince Congress to permanently reauthorize and fully fund the nation’s most important land conservation program, the Land and Water Conservation Fund, which has helped create or enhance 40,000 park projects in all fifty states, from the Pacific Crest Trail to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. 

President Obama has already built the most robust land conservation legacy since Teddy Roosevelt, protecting breathtaking landscapes for rafting, fishing, and hiking from coast to coast. But he can’t let up in his last months in office. From the Grand Canyon to the fragile Arctic, America is home to countless stunning natural areas that are under intense pressure from mining, drilling, and other harms, and deserve permanent protection for future generations.