THE BLOG
01/08/2015 02:57 pm ET Updated Mar 10, 2015

The State of the Union's Environment

As President Obama puts the final touches on his State of the Union address, there is one topic he should add to his checklist, or more accurately perhaps, his bucket list. No State of the Union report can be complete these days without addressing the state of the union's environment, and especially our vulnerability to climate change.

With his January 20 address to Congress, the president has an opportunity to lay the groundwork for the United States' role in the next and hopefully climactic international conference on climate change, to be held this December in Paris. The administration is scheduled to announce the U.S. negotiating position in March.

The president can talk to the American people any time he wants, of course. But there are not many opportunities for him to command a national audience in prime time and in a forum where he is eyeball to eyeball with a Republican-dominated Congress.

Whatever else we expect from this Congress this year, two things are pretty certain. First, the State of the Union speech will be shorter than usual because it will be interrupted by fewer standing ovations. Second, the climate denial caucus will want to cause trouble. It has the ability to undermine the United States' negotiating strength in Paris by undermining President Obama's efforts to deal with global warming at home.

Few who attended the big climate treaty talks in Copenhagen five years ago will forget the spectacle of Sen. James Inhofe flying across the Atlantic to tell the media while negotiations were underway that he wanted to "make sure that nobody is laboring under the misconception that the US Senate is going to do something" about climate change.

In his State of the Union speech, the president will have the opportunity to set the political terms of the inevitable domestic climate debate. What should those terms be?

First, time has run out for talking and pointless debate. International negotiations have been going on for the last 21 years. Back in 2009 if not before, climate scientists calculated that to avoid the worst damage from climate change, the world's greenhouse gas emissions would have to peak this year, 2015. But they are still growing.

Second, the United States has a singular responsibility to be both an example and a leader in the prospective Paris treaty. We are responsible for most of the green house gases in the troposphere today and we are still one of the world's biggest carbon polluters.

Third, the longer we wait to cut carbon emissions, the more pain we will inflict on ourselves. The impacts of climate change are no longer far away, either in physical distance or time. They are disastrously proximate. They already are having adverse impacts on the economy, on our efforts to control federal spending, on the health and safety of the American people, on the future of coastal communities, and on national security. Those who are concerned about illegal immigration, to pick just one hot-button issue, should consider that as many as 7 million refugees are expected to come across our southern border in the next several decades to escape climate impacts in Mexico.

Fourth, our elected leaders have a responsibility to protect the American people from risks, especially risks so serious to our well being. Climate change ranks up there with nuclear war as the most serious existential risks the world faces today.

Finally, the American people want and expect Washington to confront climate change. When the Pew Research Center for People and the Press polled Americans last year, 71 percent said the country "should do whatever it takes to protect the environment." When researchers at Yale University polled registered voters last July, 62 percent said the United States should cut its greenhouse gas emissions regardless of what other countries do.

The president could point out that one of the most important examples the United States can set prior to Paris is to end taxpayer subsidies of our big oil companies -- an action he has recommended to Congress for several consecutive years with no result. It is a step that all nations must take, along with protections for low-income consumers, to end the ridiculous practice of paying carbon polluters to pollute on one hand while we are trying to cut carbon emissions on the other. This is another issue on which the American people agree. As far back as 2011, 70 percent of Americans said they opposed federal subsides for oil, coal and natural gas, including majorities of Republicans, Democrats and Independents. In a poll of Americans last fall, 71 percent of the respondents said they believe that alternative energy resources such as solar and wind power would be the most effective way to battle climate change.

The president can predict that one thing will be made especially transparent this year: If Congress continues to fail to act against climate change, and if it does anything to undermine the United State's credibility on this issue, it will prove that our lawmakers are serving special interests rather than the American people.

Finally, there are many other critical environmental issues we must address today, ranging from the massive loss of our forests because of fire and insect infestations, to the need to protect our freshwater and ocean resources and to restore the coastal and watershed ecosystems that help protect communities from flooding. The president might announce that starting on Earth Day this April, he will convene Congress to address the State of the Union's Environment, a report he hopes his successors will make a tradition every year to come.

There is nothing in the Constitution that implies a president can give only one State of the Union address each year. It says only that the president "shall from time to time give to the Congress information on the State of the Union" and he may on extraordinary occasions convene Congress to hear his reports. These are extraordinary times in which every nation's environmental impacts affect everyone else and when the impacts are so profound that they threaten irreversible damage to the quality of our lives. This is an "extraordinary occasion" because the upcoming climate conference in Paris must bring a successful conclusion to all these years of talk.

The president should speak to Congress about these issues on behalf of the American people as many times as it takes to get lawmakers, regardless of party, to recognize that they have a solemn fiduciary and moral responsibility to protect America from the tragedy of the commons.