President Obama State of the Union Address: International Climate Implications

Addressing climate change is a key legacy issue for President Obama. His tenure is occurring when the scientific evidence on climate change is irrefutable, the imperative to act immediately is evident, and the ability to act decisively is within grasp. Will his presidency be known as the moment that the U.S. turned the corner and started to seriously address the carbon pollution that is driving climate change while helping tackle this challenge internationally? Last night his State of the Union speech provides signs that his Administration will follow through on its climate plan and build for even deeper action after 2020. Action by the U.S. is critical because the U.S. is a major polluter and because it sends a powerful signal to other countries.

In June President Obama directed the U.S. government to implement existing law through a series of concrete actions to reduce carbon pollution. Strong implementation of these measures will put the U.S. on track to meet the U.S. target to cut carbon pollution 17 percent below 2005 levels by 2020. Chief among the critical measures in the plan is to adopt new safeguards under the Clean Air Act to cut carbon pollution from existing power plants. President Obama signaled he is serious about following through on those safeguards as this aspect of the Climate Action Plan received a particular shout-out, as NRDC’s President discussed. He needs to reject projects that would vastly expand the production of the dirtiest fuels, particularly the proposed Keystone XL pipeline for dirty tar sands oil. And he needs to take strong action to safeguard us from natural gas fracking.

U.S. action at home also sends a powerful signal to the rest of the world since addressing climate change requires that the U.S. cut its own carbon pollution while working aggressively with other countries to cut their pollution. And while not discussed in the State of the Union, President Obama recently outlined his thoughts on the international aspect of climate action in an interview with David Remnick of the New Yorker:

“…my goal has been to make sure that the United States can genuinely assert leadership in this issue [climate change] internationally, that we are considered part of the solution rather than part of the problem…This is why I’m putting a big priority on our carbon action plan here…It’s because it’s very hard for me to get in that conversation [with emerging economies] if we’re making no effort. And it’s not an answer for us to say, Well, since the Chinese and the Indians are the bigger problem, we might as well not even bother.”

With promising signs of action throughout the world including in China and India, the U.S. won’t be acting alone as many of the naysayers continue to assert. Here are just a few examples:

As President Obama seems to recognize U.S. leadership can’t just mean leading by acting at home. So the U.S. Climate Action Plan commits to acting internationally.

His Administration has delivered some important action by moving aggressively to end public financing of overseas coal projects. And his Administration is putting pressure on the key holdouts such as Japan, Germany, France, and others. We’ll be working with others to help secure that the last dominoes fall on overseas public financing of coal projects as way too much scarce public financing is being used to fund overseas coal projects that are driving climate change.

And his Administration committed to helping secure a strong international agreement on climate change. He’ll have a chance in December 2015 to advance that objective when countries are set to agree on the next round of international commitments. That agreement must be built upon strong urgent domestic action coupled with international investments to aid countries in further reducing emissions and adapting to the impacts of climate change.

International leadership must be followed by tangible actions both at home and abroad. The State of the Union and Obama’s recent remarks show that he understands both aspects of action on climate change (as my colleague discussed). Over the coming months and years he’ll get more chances to put a further stamp on his domestic and international climate legacy. That legacy isn’t just about how his Presidency will be recorded in history books, but about whether he sets the U.S. and the world on a clear course to address climate change.