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Mr. President: We Can Drill, or We Can Fight Climate Change. But We Can't Do Both.

02/14/2013 12:48 pm ET | Updated Apr 16, 2013

I watched the State of the Union speech Tuesday night with my mom at her house in northeast Vermont, which I finally reached after two cancelled, and two extremely delayed, flights -- all disrupted due to yet another history-making storm.

So I've been thinking a lot about climate change these last 24 hours.

Thankfully, so has the president. That was some speech. I especially liked this: "But for the sake of our children and our future, we must do more to combat climate change." And this: "[W]e can choose to believe in the overwhelming judgment of science -- and act before it's too late." And this: "But if Congress won't act soon to protect future generations, I will."

Some of these words were backed up with solid calls to action. The president supported an innovative idea, an Energy Security Trust, which would divert some royalties from oil and gas drilling on public lands and direct them toward alternative fuels and vehicles. He also talked about taking executive action to reduce pollution (perhaps a call for using the Clean Air Act to reduce emissions from coal fired power plants?), address the need for climate adaptation, and speed the transition to an advanced energy economy. He even set a fairly ambitious goal, to cut our energy use in homes and businesses in half over the next 20 years.

But to my mind, the president's real fighting words came in the non-climate parts of the speech. His calls for universal preschool, direct connections between trained high school students and hiring employers, and a higher minimum wage were passionate and specific (and, frankly, awesome).

I have no doubt that the president's staff has already put together detailed proposals on each of these issues, and that his administration will push hard to pursue them. And I'm thrilled. Besides just being the right things to do, these are all critical parts of the transition to an advanced energy economy: without well-prepared students, who also have access to relevant training for actual good-quality jobs, we won't have a new energy economy.

Climate change is more difficult. It's a complicated challenge that is global in scale, and it's got a longer time horizon. But like those other issues, it requires -- urgently requires -- a strong commitment to short-term action.

And unfortunately, while I heard a strong moral commitment to dealing with climate change in the president's speech, I also heard a strong political commitment to expand America's drilling operations and keep the country focused on an "all of the above" energy strategy.

And I'm just not sure the two can coexist. That's why environmental groups are organizing a massive rally, on February 17, to draw attention to the connections between climate change and fossil fuel extraction. That's why, here in California, we're seeing such a strong tension between our state's specific policy commitment to lower carbon emissions through the Low Carbon Fuel Standard, and the industry's desire to keep oil flowing through the state. The industry is fighting hard to get rid of the LCFS because it sees the writing on the wall: we simply can't lower emissions from the transportation sector, which accounts for 40 percent of all carbon emissions in this country, and keep right on drilling at the same time. Instead, we have to turn away from oil and toward alternatives: alternative fuels, alternative vehicles, and alternatives to driving itself.

That's right: we have to turn away from oil. We have to turn hard toward alternatives.

The president is strong on that second part -- his speech Tuesday night proves it. He wants to make sure our country is prepared to make the kind of major economic transition demanded by the realities of climate change, by educating our kids, providing good training and a good wage to our workers, and investing in our innovators and our manufacturers.

But that first part, turning away from oil, is where we need to see more leadership. Because it's going to take every ounce of political, moral and economic strength our country can muster to make it happen.