U.S. President Obama's State of the Union yesterday included a more muscular approach to climate change than he has taken in prior such speeches. This, combined with his inaugural address, provides some reason for hope that we will see change in his second term.
Three aspects of the president's speech stood out.
First, he embraced science. While this should hardly be controversial, the American political debate has wasted precious time in recent years on manufactured uncertainty about climate change. Even Al Gore in his 2000 presidential campaign failed to drive home the fact that the scientific "debate" is nothing but a sideshow. Just as alcoholics first have to acknowledge that they have a problem, the American political system has to begin by acknowledging the climate facts that are staring us in the face.
Second, the president framed the debate in a way Washington can understand. He used classic tactics, citing competition from China as a reason to act, and threatening his own executive authority if Congress fails to take action. Even as the Beltway debates when he will become a lame duck, the president has more latitude for action now than he did four years ago, when digging out of a perilous financial crisis consumed most political energy and capital.
Third, he raised an issue that has gotten much too little attention in the American public debate: waste. His only real commitment was to reduce energy wasted in housing and business, and this makes perfect sense (and is politically unassailable). I am delighted to see a president frame the issue as being about waste. There is no constituency for waste, and Americans are in effect taxing themselves (let alone the environment) through the rampant waste our culture has come to accept. If political success depends on the successful framing of issues, Obama got it right here.
Speeches are just words on a page. The president was more inspirational when it came to his call for gun control. But he has clearly laid down a marker that he intends to act to reduce climate change over the next four years. And he was entirely vague about the measures he plans take. He left more questions unanswered than resolved, and gave no policy specifics for anyone to rally around.
So this is only a start... but it is a good one. And it is a start that will go further if businesses restart their calls for action to promote low-carbon prosperity from the world's largest economy and most significant national political actor.