State of the Union speech sets the stage for international climate leadership and cooperation

President Obama in his State of the Union speech reaffirmed his commitment to take action on clean energy and fighting climate change. Around the world, leaders are watching how we add additional action to the progress already made in achieving US carbon pollution reductions. The President said “And 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.” This is a critical point for our international partners as they try to understand the direction of the US climate agenda while weighing up their own commitments and actions. US climate action at home means US credibility and leadership internationally. And without strong US actions, targets and leadership, we lose an opportunity for international cooperation to tackle with the very real threats of climate change.

We know what we need to do and we can get it done. As the President said and has already committed: we need carbon pollution limits on power plants.  These limits need to be both for new and existing power plants and NRDC has shown how this can be done. But we also need to reject dirty energy projects starting with the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline. And we need to put clean energy front and center as we move beyond fossil fuels. As the President noted, clean energy is an area rich with energy resources and economic opportunities. The future for the US and for the global community is to continue to increase our energy and fuel efficiency, strengthen our renewable energy, use smarter growth, and electrify our vehicles.

Our friends abroad have noted the gridlock in the US Congress and many wonder what it means for climate action. But there is a lot that the President can do under existing US law to fight climate change and that is the commitment he made very clear in the State of the Union. He said, “But America does not stand still – and neither will I.  So wherever and whenever I can take steps without legislation to expand opportunity for more American families, that’s what I’m going to do.” This path is one that still requires hard work, public input and strong leadership. The fossil fuel industry is pushing back against limits to their power, even as climate change is taking a heavy toll on our health and communities. As the President said, “a changing climate is already harming western communities struggling with drought, and coastal cities dealing with floods.”

Also critical to efforts to tackle climate change was the President’s clear message on the need to stop subsidies for fossil fuels. This is in line with international commitments pushed by President Obama since 2009 that have not yet had enough clear action to back them up. The Administration had been relatively quiet on stopping fossil fuel subsidies in recent months. This latest call for “smarter tax policy that stops giving $4 billion a year to fossil fuel industries that don’t need it, so that we can invest more in fuels of the future that do” is the right path. But this is an area where we do need Congressional action.

And in the same way that our energy decisions are intertwined with climate change, so are the current discussions around new trade agreements intertwined with our health and environment. The President called for trade agreements that protect our environment. We know that a trade agreement that ignores environment, human rights and labor is the wrong choice. Decisions made under trade agreements impact us in many ways – from our health to our democracy. The latest rounds of trade agreements are moving in the wrong direction when it comes to environmental protections as we recently pointed out. This is definitely an area where we need strong US leadership, as any 21st century trade agreement must have a minimum set of safeguards.

Climate change is a global challenge and it will take all of us from the Americas to Europe, China, India and beyond working together to change the way we move and power our economies. President Obama concluded by saying, “let’s remember that our leadership is defined not just by our defense against threats, but by the enormous opportunities to do good and promote understanding around the globe – to forge greater cooperation.” That is exactly what is needed on climate change: greater cooperation that leads to action.