Obama: Climate change gets airtime but legislative action much harder

President Obama gave the most amount of airtime during his inaugural address to the question of climate change. He clocked in at 8 full sentences with regard to the issue, reminding those in the audience of the near term impacts, including drought, fires, and severe storms—a topic fresh in Americans’ minds.
Richard Stevenson and John Broder in The New York Times astutely point out that this time around Obama is more realistic about what is possible, having had his hopes of cap and trade legislation dashed by Congress during his first term.
Look for tougher EPA rules on coal emitting power plants as well as new efficiency standards for home appliances and buildings. These efficiency measures get less attention but are nonetheless some of the most impactful steps in terms of further bringing down the carbon footprint of Americans.
If all of these actions don’t require Congressional help, it’s no surprise. Obama can’t get much through Congress on the climate front and the only thing we’ll hear from Congress is a fight about who heads the EPA when that nomination occurs.
From my perspective the most troubling issue has more to do with the fact that the president will struggle to get any additional appropriations for clean energy research and development. Efficiency measures are huge and they will go a long way. But they won’t get us any closer to game changing technology to catalyze a shift in energy sourcing. And with seed stage financing evaporating for cleantech, it’s getting harder to get promising technology out of the lab and into early stage development.
I tend to view this issue in terms of politics, risk and probability. It’s politically improbable (impossible) that Obama can get legislation creating a cap and trade system through Congress. This is America where there are certain political possibilities within which Obama has to maneuver. But a larger scale clean energy research and development program would be marginally easier politically because it wouldn’t be opposed by every carbon emitting business in the U.S. And in terms of the probability that a game changing technology could emerge from such an expansion, that probability is also small but at least the political probability of such a bill passing is larger than the highly improbable chance of cap and trade like legislation. In the near term Obama will go with the most probable event of all–that he can just use executive power to curtain coal power plant emissions.