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Will Climate Hawks Be Dancing in the Streets?

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Email and Twitter are flooded with joyful electrons in anticipation of President Obama's big speech on global climate change, scheduled for Tuesday at Georgetown University.

The legions who have worked so hard to push global warming to the top of the national agenda will have reason to celebrate if the president announces, in his words, a "national plan to reduce carbon pollution, prepare our country for the impacts of climate change, and lead global efforts to fight it."

Before the dancing begins, however, a few words of perspective are in order.

This won't be the first time the president and his administration have used their executive powers to fight global warming. In addition to a few big actions during Obama's first term -- for example, increasing vehicle efficiency standards, the recovery bill's unprecedented investments in clean energy, and EPA's first steps at regulating greenhouse gases -- the administration has put scores of carbon-cutting measures in motion. It hasn't bragged about them much, perhaps reflecting a decision that stealth has been the best leadership strategy so far.

Second, whatever President Obama announces Tuesday should not be the totality of his climate agenda for the rest of his presidency. It should be the beginning of a more aggressive push for climate action and clean energy that lasts until the day he leaves office.

Third, the president should not let Congress off the hook. Obama is following through on the promise in his Inaugural Address that if Congress didn't act on global warming, he would. The fact remains, however, that the most impactful and lasting changes in America's energy and climate policies require action by Congress, including a price on carbon.

It has proven futile to bludgeon the current Congress into acknowledging the reality of climate change, let alone doing something about it. President Obama should turn the nation's attention to next year's mid-term election. If the American people want to curb climate change -- and opinion polls show a large majority of the people do -- it will take a regime change on Capitol Hill. As the mid-term election approaches, President Obama and his cabinet should continue driving home that we already are going to suffer a lot more of what we're getting today -- floods, drought, strong hurricanes, wildfires -- but that without action, it will get unimaginably worse.

President Obama should not let opponents get away with the tired argument that climate action costs jobs, or weakens the economy, or diverts Washington from the issues that are highest on the public's priority list. As repeated research has shown, America's transition to a clean energy economy will be a huge job and business creator, engaging the United States in the largest emerging global market in history.

Insofar as there are dislocations -- and they are inevitable with major evolutions of technology -- the administration should champion a compassionate transition, in which the federal government takes steps to help those regions and workers who are most affected.

Finally, climate hawks also have a job to do on Tuesday. It's to demonstrate that there is political reward for leaders who confront the realities of global warming. If the president matches his actions with his recent words, our praise should be effusive.

So, congratulations to President Obama for his blunt acknowledgments this year about the imperative of climate action, and kudos in advance for the steps he announces Tuesday.

Let's hope his speech launches a bold new phase in his climate leadership -- a phase that remains intense and innovative until January 2017. Like the rest of the world community, we have a long way to go before our response to global warming is what the threat deserves.

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