In Second Inaugural, Obama Makes Climate A Priority

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President Obama pulled out a surprise in his inaugural address on Monday. After barely mentioning climate change in his campaign, he put it on his short list of priorities for his second term.

"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. Today the White House had scant detail on what the president plans to do.

But his rhetoric was music to the ears of some environmental leaders, including Frances Beinecke, president of the Natural Resources Defense Council, who was listening to the president's speech while standing behind him on the platform at Capitol.

"When I heard the president make that statement, I let out a shout because I was so excited," she says. Beinecke said the president made a strong case that the droughts, forest fires and superstorms of 2012 compel action.

"He recognized that climate change is a problem of now. It's not a problem of the future," she says.

At the White House today, spokesman Jay Carney refused to give any detail about what new plans the president has to fight climate change.

"I'm not going to speculate for you about future actions," he said. "The president made clear that he believes it's a priority. He has a record already of historic accomplishments in this area. But more needs to be done."

Although Carney wouldn't say it, former White House officials, environmental leaders and representatives of electricity industry all believe they know what the president has in mind.

He's already reduced the greenhouse gases that come from cars. Now they expect that he'll use the Environmental Protection Agency to ramp up his efforts to reduce greenhouse gases from power plants. The EPA already proposed a rule that would make it virtually impossible to build new coal-fired power plants.

Carol Browner, a former EPA chief and former assistant to President Obama, says next the agency will use its authority to reduce greenhouse gas pollution from existing power plants.

"Yes, people should expect it," she says. "It is a very important tool that the president has available to him."

Quin Shea, a vice president for environment at the Edison Electric Institute, the industry's trade group, says electric companies are expecting this.

"We're definitely ready to engage," Shea says. He says electric companies are already reducing their greenhouse gas emissions. That's in large part due to a big shift from coal to cheaper natural gas.

The coming months are not likely to be a love fest between the president and environmental groups because of an upcoming decision on the Keystone XL pipeline.

The pipeline would carry tar sands oil from Canada to U.S. refineries. It takes so much energy to produce this heavy oil that it has a larger greenhouse gas footprint. And on Tuesday, Nebraska's government gave its go-ahead to the massive pipeline. Now, environmental groups fear the president will approve the Keystone XL.

"We can't expand production of the dirtiest source of oil on the planet if we want to reduce carbon pollution," says Michael Brune, executive director of the Sierra Club. He says the nation's oldest and largest environmental group is so worried that the president will give his OK, that it's planning to make an exception to its historic ban on participating in acts of civil disobedience. That means they're going to try to get arrested at an upcoming protest.

"That the Sierra Club is willing to engage in thoughtful and peaceful and respectful civil disobedience shows that there's a new level of urgency regarding climate change, and a growing impatience about the lack of political courage that we're seeing from the president and from leaders in Congress," Brune says.

He says civil disobedience helped women get the vote and African-Americans get equal rights. He hopes this move will turn up the pressure on President Obama to follow through with his rhetoric and make hard decisions to fight global warming.

Copyright 2013 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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