A Far-Reaching Vision

Credit: Evan Vucci/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images

President Obama's State of the Union address highlighted the progress we've made in the fight against global climate change -- and encouraged us all to keep moving forward.

In his final State of the Union address Tuesday, President Obama mapped out a far-reaching vision for fighting global climate change by reducing our reliance on fossil fuels. He called on Americans to "accelerate the transition away from old, dirtier energy sources" and embrace cleaner, smarter ways to power our future without imperiling the planet. And he held out last month's historic climate agreement in Paris as evidence of the country's global leadership on the issue and the need to build on the progress already made.

"None of this will happen overnight, and yes, there are plenty of entrenched interests who want to protect the status quo," Obama said. "But the jobs we'll create, the money we'll save, and the planet we'll preserve--that is the kind of future our kids and grandkids deserve, and it's within our grasp."

In Paris, nearly 200 countries put plans on the table to cut or curb the use of the fossil fuels that are driving climate chaos. That wouldn't have happened without U.S. leadership. And leadership abroad begins at home, where Obama has done more than any other president to protect future generations from the growing dangers of climate change.

His economic recovery package included billions of dollars to help jump-start the effort to build the next generation of energy-efficient cars, homes, and workplaces. He's helped us get more clean power from the wind and sun. He brokered an historic accord with automakers that will roughly double the fuel efficiency of the cars we drive, cutting in half our carbon footprint, per mile driven, by 2025. He's close to finalizing an initiative to improve fuel efficiency on the freight trucks that move 70 percent of the products we consume, an effort that will save billions of gallons of diesel fuel each year while reducing carbon pollution from the big rigs. And his Clean Power Plan is going to reduce the carbon pollution from our power plants by nearly one-third by 2030.

"Here are the results," Obama explained Tuesday night. "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," he said. "Now we've got to accelerate the transition away from old, dirtier energy sources."

It's past time, the president made clear, to end the estimated $4.7 billion a year in federal subsidies for oil and gas development. The oil and gas industry predates the Civil War. There's no reason taxpayers should shell out one thin dime to help prop up this aging industry whose operations put our communities and environment at risk and whose products are disrupting our climate and threatening our future.

"Rather than subsidize the past, we should invest in the future," Obama said, "especially in communities that rely on fossil fuels."

One way to do that, he said, is to reform a royalty system that denies taxpayers fair value for fossil fuels drawn from public lands, so that more money can flow back to the communities most impacted by the production of coal, gas and oil.

"That's why I'm going to push to change the way we manage our oil and coal resources," Obama pledged, "so that they better reflect the costs they impose on taxpayers and our planet."

After decades of paralysis, halfhearted measures, and false starts, we're finally beginning to move in the right direction. Now it's time to build on those gains. That's what the president said loud and clear.

Here, looking forward, is what that means.

First, we have to work together to make sure the states do their part to cut the carbon pollution that's driving climate change. In the months ahead, we need each state to show how it will help clean up the nation's dirty power plants. That's what the Clean Power Plan is all about. It gives people in every state the opportunity to shape their own clean energy future. We can't let big polluters and their political allies turn us around.

Next, we have to go after two other powerful greenhouse gases: methane and hydrofluorocarbons.

After power plants, which account for 40 percent of our national carbon footprint, methane leaks from oil and gas operations are the second-largest industrial source of planet-warming gases in our country. Last August, the Obama administration proposed new standards to reduce that pollution from new operations. We need to finalize and implement strong standards to get the job done, and we need standards to cover existing oil and gas operations, too, because that's where the methane pollution is coming from.

We also need to complete a global accord to reduce hydrofluorocarbons, commonly used in air-conditioning and refrigeration systems, where climate-friendly alternatives are available.

Finally, we have to stop going to the ends of the earth to grab up the coal, gas and oil that are driving climate change. That means taking precious Arctic and Atlantic waters off the table--permanently--to oil and gas drilling and all the damage and hazard such drilling brings to our oceans, marine life, coastal communities, and climate. And it means phasing out, over time, fossil fuel production on federal lands set aside for all of us to enjoy.

Our public lands and waters are a public trust, designated to serve the public interest. Let's use them to support clean energy from the wind and sun, where appropriate, not to lock our children and grandchildren into fossil fuels and all the harm and peril they bring.

There's plenty more to do in the long term. What's important is that we've made a good start--and we need to keep moving forward. In this important year, we all must let our leaders know, in Washington and around the country, that we care about leaving our children a livable world, we won't stop until we do, and we expect real action toward that end from all our leaders, today and tomorrow.