WASHINGTON — After President Obama finished his inaugural speech Monday, Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Beverly Hills) thanked him for mentioning climate change, a topic environmentalists said Obama had avoided during much of his first term.
"I did more than mention climate change," the president told Waxman.
In discussing the urgency of climate change before a national audience, the president elevated the issue into the top tier of second-term priorities that include fiscal reform, gun control and immigration reform.
"We will respond to the threat of climate change, knowing that the failure to do so would betray our children and future generations," he said Monday. "Some may still deny the overwhelming judgment of science, but none can avoid the devastating impact of raging fires and crippling drought and more powerful storms."
Many environmentalists have come to believe that Obama's more frequent, detailed mentions of climate change since the election could signal a greater willingness to step up reductions in greenhouse gas emissions.
The president isn't ruling out the idea of a legislative package to combat climate change during his second term, senior officials say. But the political landscape is even less favorable to passage of legislative initiatives than during his first term.
In the near term, Obama will probably rely on his executive authority and Environmental Protection Agency rules to avoid fights with Congress as he works to reduce emissions of carbon dioxide, the main driver of climate change.
"I think the president isn't just about talk," said Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.). The administration, she added, has "no choice but to act."
Despite Obama's public reticence on climate change during his first term, his administration moved aggressively on several fronts to cut emissions of carbon dioxide. The administration contends that its first-term rules to boost gas mileage and curtail greenhouse gases from new power plants will have a demonstrable effect on carbon emissions.
The auto standards alone "did more to reduce carbon pollution than any other action that has been taken, in our view," White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said Tuesday. "We need to continue to build on that, and the president intends to continue to build on that progress in the second term."
Supporters and opponents alike are looking for clues about Obama's posture in upcoming decisions. The final rules for greenhouse gas limits from new power plants are due by April. It remains unclear whether the EPA will then roll out new rules for existing power plants, most of which run on fossil fuels. The emissions from existing plants account for almost 40% of the greenhouse gases the country produces.
The administration has also said that it could make a decision by March about approving the controversial Keystone XL pipeline from Canada to the U.S. Gulf Coast. Environmentalists contend that extracting and processing the oil from Alberta's tar sands use so much energy, far more carbon would be pumped into the atmosphere if oil fields were developed to feed the pipeline.
If the Obama administration decides not to give the pipeline a permit, it would be in for a tough fight with those in Congress who would try to legislate approval for the project, said Trip Van Noppen, president of Earthjustice, an environmental law group.
The administration could chip away at carbon emissions through other administrative steps, including limiting greenhouse gases at refineries, curtailing the flaring of natural gas at oil wells, and pushing energy efficiency measures and investments in alternative energy. But over the long term, that might not be enough to cut emissions on the scale needed to show the country's commitment to fighting climate change.
"Those actions will bend the carbon curve in the short term, but that curve needs to be bent steeper than those steps will allow," Van Noppen said.
Rep. Edward Whitfield (R-Ky.), chairman of the House energy and power subcommittee of the Energy and Commerce Committee, confirmed that administration-backed legislation to address climate change would meet stiff resistance.
"Cap-and-trade legislation already failed in the Democrat-controlled Senate and there is currently no appetite in Congress to go down that path again," Whitfield said of providing a system of credits for limiting greenhouse gases.
Whether it be cap-and-trade, a carbon tax or new greenhouse gas regulations, "House Republicans will continue to oppose any plan that drives up energy costs and puts American businesses at a competitive disadvantage," he said.
Right now, the White House is focused on rolling out a budget, legislative plans on gun control, and immigration. For the time being, aides talk about environmental measures as if they are part of an ongoing project the president already thinks is going well.
Asked about whether the president might push for a big legislative proposal like the failed cap-and-trade plan, Carney suggested the president was more interested in actual change than in proposals for their own sake.
"Deficit reduction, for example, is not a goal unto itself," he said. "We pursue it in a way that helps our economy grow and helps it create jobs. Otherwise, it's not worth the effort, in his mind."
With climate change, he went on, "you don't pursue action that helps deal with that problem just because of the problem itself, but because there are huge opportunities there in alternative energy."