State Of The Union: Climate Change Plan, Green Energy On Environmentalists' Wish List

02/12/2013 02:59 pm ET | Updated Feb 12, 2013

Ronnie Citron-Fink of upstate New York personally felt the effects of Hurricane Irene, her cousins in Long Island lost a home to Superstorm Sandy and her Boston-based kids just experienced the latest "hundred-year event" to strike the Northeast in recent years, a record-breaking nor'easter called "Nemo."

"The political is personal," said Citron-Fink, of the nonprofit Mom's Clean Air Force. "Now is the time for Obama to address our climate change concerns," adding to that list childhood asthma and other conditions linked to pollution from the burning of fossil fuels.

Expectations are high among many environmentalists going into Tuesday night's State of the Union. President Barack Obama devoted significant time to the issue of climate change last month in his second Inaugural Address, whetting their appetites for more.

"We would hope to hear the president underscore the strong case for action he made in his address and lay out some vision for how to tackle the issue, both by reducing emissions and by strengthening our resilience to climate impacts," said Elliot Diringer, executive vice president at the nonpartisan Center for Climate and Energy Solutions.

But as many experts also note, such hopes should probably be tempered. Obama is constrained by a ticking clock and partisan politics. How he uses his limited time and political capital in his speech, they say, will determine how much of an airing their issues will get.

"The question is how much to activate your base, and how much to poke Congress in the eye, and how much to actually set up negotiations when you're going to have to give in down road to achieve compromise," said Frank Maisano, an energy strategist at the law firm Bracewell & Giuliani. "I think all of those will be at play."

Maisano added that the traditional timeframe of 45 to 55 minutes doesn't allow much time for "nitty gritty" details. He said he expects "broad strokes" on complicated climate and energy issues, including their relation to wild weather.

In addition to coming off the hottest year on record, with devastating wildfires and droughts that have left the Mississippi River nearly unnavigable, climate scientists have cast dire warnings as a result of recent storms such as Hurricane Sandy and last weekend's blizzard. HuffPost reported on Friday how such extremes might become still more extreme, due in part to global warming.

"For people to be blind and say that the climate has nothing to do with this is just insane," Dawn DeLuca of Occupy Sandy New Jersey told HuffPost, referencing the devastation Sandy left in October.

In the past, Obama has approached the topics of the climate and clean energy in the context of the economy, emphasizing the promise of green jobs. But investing his minutes in an honest, albeit grim forecast of global warming's consequences for extreme weather and public health may more effectively communicate the weight of the issue, say some experts. As the National Journal put it last week, "Obama doesn't have to sugarcoat things this time around."

During his second inaugural speech, Obama recast confronting climate change as a moral obligation to future generations. Some environmentalists suggest that argument even falls short.

"They keep talking about climate change as if it's just something in the future," said DeLuca. "The future is here. It's happening as we speak. We need to start seeing some positive action now."

The president may have increased support for such action from his constituents. In a September 2012 poll by the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication, 88 percent of respondents said the U.S. should work to reduce global warming, regardless of economic costs. The survey also found that Americans are in fact making the connection between extreme weather and climate change.

While Obama may not be able to count on help from a Republican-controlled House, experts and advocates suggested he can use his executive authority through the Environmental Protection Agency to implement tougher regulations on the fossil fuel industry, whether in the form of standards on new coal-fired power plants or economic incentives to cut emissions.

"He can use the tools already within his control to pressure energy markets to price carbon immediately, because we need immediate action to head off climate change," said Arno Harris, CEO of the solar company Recurrent Energy.

"Probably the most important thing that the president can do -- and not just in the State of the Union -- is to keep making the case," added Diringer. "We're long overdue for a sensible and sustained conversation about both the risks and the opportunities, and no one is better placed to lead that conversation than the president."

A large portion of that conversation revolves around the distribution of energy sources in Obama's "all of the above" energy strategy.

Daniel Kish, senior vice president of American Energy Alliance, told HuffPost in an emailed statement that Obama, now that he's in his second term, has a bit more "flexibility" to push forward with "his anti-fossil fuel agenda."

"If there's anything we've learned from the past four years, it's that a wide gulf exists between the president's rhetoric on affordable energy sources and his actions," he said. "Americans can expect more of the same during this year's State of the Union address."

Maisano said he foresees Obama continuing to make wind, solar and other renewables a "major piece of his equation."

"There are great renewable stories out there, such as wind projects in the upper Midwest. Unfortunately, those great successes often go quietly unnoticed and what you do see is Solyndra and other failures of the solar industry. You do see wind laying off people because of uncertainty," said Maisano. "Those few negative things often undercut the story on some of these clean energy objectives."

Natural gas will also remain a major player in Obama's mix, predicted Maisano.

Perhaps there are no two environmental or energy issues that are sparking more debate today than the fate of the Keystone XL pipeline and the proliferation of hydraulic fracturing for natural gas, also known as fracking. Although probably an unrealistic expectation at this point, some environmentalists would like to hear Obama say he'll do away with both -- or at least hear him address both issues.

"I think the environmental movement is waiting to hear what, if anything, he says about Keystone XL," Bill McKibben, co-founder of environmental group, told HuffPost in an email. "It's the one and only thing that's brought people in large numbers into the streets in years."

"If we devote to more natural gas in this country, it's just going to take us more slowly off the climate cliff," added Daniel Souweine, campaign director for the grassroots organization Forecast the Facts.

Citron-Fink said that she'd love to see a greater push for clean energy. And until or unless fracking is better studied and its effects on public health identified, she added, Obama's strategy should focus on renewables and not natural gas.

"We don't want any more dirty energy," she said. "We don't want this future for our children. We are seeing the effects now."

CORRECTION: A previous version of this article incorrectly referenced Ronnie Citron-Fink's cousins as living in New Jersey. They live in Long Island.

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