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How to Turn State of the Union Address Commitments into Real Climate Action

President Obama made it abundantly clear during the State of the Union address last night that he will direct his Administration to take on climate change. The president reiterated the urgency for action, citing climate impacts we’re already seeing like record high temperatures, heat waves, drought, wildfires, and floods. “We can choose to believe that Superstorm Sandy, and the most severe drought in decades, and the worst wildfires some states have ever seen were all just a freak coincidence,” he said. “Or we can choose to believe in the overwhelming judgment of science--and act before it’s too late.”

The president urged Congress to rise to the challenge by pursuing a “bipartisan, market-based solution,” but he also noted that the Administration will take action—with or without Congress. “I will direct my Cabinet to come up with executive actions we can take, now and in the future, to reduce pollution, prepare our communities for the consequences of climate change, and speed the transition to more sustainable sources of energy,” the president said.

This statement is especially significant because the Administration can take meaningful actions right now even without new legislation. WRI recently released a report detailing the immediate steps federal agencies can take to combat climate change. The four greatest opportunities to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the short term include: 1. Establish Emissions Standards for Power Plants: Power plants are responsible for approximately one-third of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. The Administration should act quickly to put in place flexible standards to significantly limit emissions from existing power plants, and to finalize the standards for new power plants that were proposed last year.

  1. Establish Standards to Reduce Methane Leakage from Natural Gas Production: Natural gas production is booming in the United States, but the extraction, processing, and transmission of that gas can release methane, a potent greenhouse gas. Last year’s standards for other air pollutants will help reduce methane leakage from some steps in natural gas production, but the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) can do more by setting standards to directly address methane as a greenhouse gas pollutant. The president noted last night that the Administration will encourage technologies to “help natural gas burn cleaner.” According to our research, there are a number of technologies that reduce methane leaks and that can pay for themselves in fewer than three years.

  2. Boost Energy Efficiency: The president set a goal last night to reduce the amount of energy wasted by homes and businesses by half over the next 20 years. While he specifically called out the need for more efficient buildings, consumer products like heaters, boilers, air conditioners, and more use significant amounts of energy. The Department of Energy could make an impact by setting energy efficiency standards for more products, thereby reducing emissions and saving consumers money on electric bills.

  3. Limit Hydrofluorocarbons: Hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) are one of the most rapidly growing greenhouse gases in the United States, largely used for refrigeration and cooling. HFCs are thousands of times more potent than carbon dioxide. The EPA can curb these greenhouse gas emissions by limiting them under the Clean Air Act.

If the Administration capitalizes on these four emissions-reduction opportunities, it would show U.S. citizens—and the world—that it is committed to making real progress on curbing climate change. It would also set the stage for more ambitious action in the future. This will likely require a re-engaged Congress if the United States is to reduce emissions 80 percent or more below 2005 levels, thus preventing climate change’s worst impacts.

The Costs of Climate Inaction

President Obama spent the majority of his address focused on the economy—industry, jobs, the housing market, and more. This is exactly the right context in which to discuss climate change: Global warming isn’t just an environmental issue—it’s an economic one.

We’re already seeing the economic costs climate change can bring. Hurricane Sandy’s damages tally somewhere in the realm of $65 billion. The continued U.S. drought is expected to cost us a full 1 percent of GDP. Higher temperatures have lowered water levels in the Great Lakes, increasing shipping companies’ costs by about 22 percent. And that’s just what we’ve seen this year.

President Obama made some encouraging commitments, and we’ll be watching closely to see how the Administration follows through. Taking strong action to reduce U.S. greenhouse gas emissions will send a powerful message: That the U.S. Administration is committed to safeguarding America’s environmental and economic future.

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