The State of Our Union Is Hot

What the president said about climate change in his address to Congress.

January 20, 2015

For several years, President Obama described his views on same-sex marriage as “evolving.” It’s a good word, since Democrats are generally enthusiastic about evolution. Well, it appears the president is evolving again.

The president has always been a believer in the science of climate change and the need for urgent action, but he didn’t like to talk about it very much—at least not in his biggest speeches to Congress. (Perhaps he knew his audience.) In his previous five State of the Union addresses, he used the word climate no more than three times. In 2011, he didn’t mention it at all.

Photo: The White House

Tonight, the President Obama mentioned climate four times. That sounds like a minor increase, but the content of those mentions suggests he’s evolving very, very quickly—like “becoming amphibious” quickly. That skill might be useful, by the way, if we don’t act on climate change.

Here’s what President Obama said in his 2010 speech, according to the official transcript:

And, yes, it means passing a comprehensive energy and climate bill with incentives that will finally make clean energy the profitable kind of energy in America. (Applause.)

Pretty limited mention. Here’s the transcript from 2013:

But for the sake of our children and our future, we must do more to combat climate change.  (Applause.)

And here is last year’s transcript:

But the debate is settled. Climate change is a fact. (Applause.)

Applause, applause, applause. It’s enough to make Lady Gaga switch to politics. (She lives for it, you know.) But the mentions are rarely more than that—the president never spent more than a few seconds of his State of the Union screen time on climate change.

This year, the president actually discussed the facts and the science:

And no challenge — no challenge — poses a greater threat to future generations than climate change. 2014 was the planet’s warmest year on record. Now, one year doesn’t make a trend, but this does —14 of the 15 warmest years on record have all fallen in the first 15 years of this century.

And he had this zinger for the “I’m not a scientist” know-nothings:

I’ve heard some folks try to dodge the evidence by saying they’re not scientists, that we don’t have enough information to act. Well, I’m not a scientist, either. But you know what — I know a lot of really good scientists at NASA and NOAA, and at our major universities. The best scientists in the world are all telling us that our activities are changing the climate, and if we do not act forcefully, we’ll continue to see rising oceans, longer, hotter heat waves, dangerous droughts and floods, and massive disruptions that can trigger greater migration, conflict, and hunger around the globe. The Pentagon says that climate change poses immediate risks to our national security. We should act like it.

He connected the problem to his diplomatic efforts to forge a solution:

In Beijing, we made a historic announcement — the United States will double the pace at which we cut carbon pollution, and China committed, for the first time, to limiting their emissions. And because the world’s two largest economies came together, other nations are now stepping up and offering hope that, this year, the world will finally reach an agreement to protect the one planet we’ve got.

And he mentioned clean energy:

America is number one in wind power. Every three weeks, we bring online as much solar power as we did in all of 2008. 

OK, OK—four mentions is a modest increase and the clean energy shout-out was sandwiched between some unfortunate bragging about fossil fuel extraction. President Obama’s evolutions, though, are unidirectional. What’s the over-under on next year’s State of the Union climate mentions? Five? Six? We can dream.

The more important thing, though, is not how much he talks about climate, but the action he takes. And on that score, 2014 was a banner year, with 2015 shaping up to be the same. The Clean Power Plan. A pact with China. Methane rules.

Talk can garner applause, but the real plaudits will come after action.

onEarth provides reporting and analysis about environmental science, policy, and culture. All opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the policies or positions of NRDC. Learn more or follow us on Facebook and Twitter.

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