What Obama really said to environmentalists Wednesday night


President Obama spoke at a League of Conservation Voters dinner at the Ronald Reagan Building on Wednesday. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

President Obama has been talking a lot about climate change and other environmental issues over the past couple of months, but his remarks to the League of Conservation Voters (LCV) on Wednesday night provides a particularly good lens on his thinking on these subjects. Here are some of the top takeaways from that speech:

1. Mocking Republicans who question the link between human activity and global warming is now a Democratic talking point. Environmentalists have been doing this for years -- LCV launched a campaign last cycle against the "Flat Earth Five" in Congress -- but now, Obama has embraced their rhetoric. Tacitly referring to lawmakers such as House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), the president said, "Most recently, because many who say that actually know better and they’re just embarrassed, they duck the question.  They say, hey, I’m not a scientist, which really translates into, I accept that man-made climate change is real, but if I say so out loud, I will be run out of town by a bunch of fringe elements that thinks climate science is a liberal plot, so I’m going to just pretend like, I don’t know, I can’t read."

Obama referred to the threat posed by this "radical fringe" within the GOP two weeks ago during his commencement address at the University of California, Irvine, saying the hostility toward climate science exceeds the kind of opposition previous presidents have faced. When President John F. Kennedy wanted to send people to the moon, Obama said, many said it wouldn’t work, but few denied its existence or said the moon was “made of cheese.”

2. He's not putting that pen down! Obama plans to impose stricter protections on federal land and waters through his executive authority. "Since I took office, we’ve established 10 new national parks, 10 new national wildlife refuges, 11 new national monuments," Obama said, prompting applause. "I just announced plans to further protect our oceans." The fact that the president is touting his use of the 1906 Antiquities Act -- which has drawn sharp criticism from congressional Republicans -- shows he plans to keep putting some areas under federal control off-limits to extractive activities.

3. The White House is also willing to have a fight over the Clean Water Act. For months, the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership and other groups representing hunters and anglers have been pressing the administration to defend the decades-old law protecting U.S. water quality. Weighing in on the issue, Obama said, "And I’m not just going to stand with environmentalists -- I’m going to stand with sportsmen and conservationists against members of Congress who want to dismantle the Clean Water Act." After the crowd applauded, Obama added: "We’ve got to dredge up that old tape of the Cuyahoga River on fire, and the Chicago River, and just remind people that this thing worked.  It was one of the great achievements of modern American politics ...  realizing that we didn’t have to trade off a healthy environment for our kids and economic growth."

In an e-mail, TRCP president Whit Fosburgh wrote the comments suggest the White House is willing to fight a bill authored by Sens. Joe Manchin (WVa.) and David Vitter (La.), which would limit the Environmental Protection Agency's jurisdiction over mining waste, and efforts to rollback a proposed EPA rule giving the federal government regulatory authority over millions of acres of wetlands and streams. Both efforts, Fosburgh wrote, "would directly undercut the law’s ability to protect clean water (and habitat) as it has since the 1970s."

4. Betting on a winning candidate early has its benefits. During Wednesday's remarks, Obama got some of his biggest laughs when he explained why he was particularly indebted to LCV. "When I ran for the U.S. Senate, I was decidedly the underdog, really nobody knew me.  And LCV, because it’s a good-government type, goes through process, and they had the board interview all the candidates," he said, prompting a laugh. "And I went in and I did my shtick -- (the audience laughed again) -- and they endorsed me.  And I was not at all favored to win. And it was the first and probably only prominent national organization to endorse me in the primary; everybody endorsed me in the general." After more guffaws, the president continued. "But for me, at least, it was a testament that this was an organization that cared about ideas, and obviously had a really good eye for talent."

After another round of laughs, Obama said: "So I am here primarily out of loyalty.  There’s a little payback going on here." This time his remarks drew both chuckles and applause.  "But then there is also the whole protecting the planet thing." The audience laughed once more.

5. He's not touching the Keystone XL pipeline with a 10-foot pole. The State Department decided in April to postpone making a decision on the Keystone XL pipeline, which would ship heavy crude oil from Hardisty, Alberta, to refineries on the U.S. Gulf Coast. While environmentalists have made denial of a presidential permit one of their top policy priorities, Obama didn't mention it at all in his speech. Environmentalists remain staunchly opposed but do not have the same sense of urgency about it that they had a few months ago now that any final decision is likely to take place after the November mid-term elections.

6. The president has a soft spot for wacky University of California mascots. After his reference to UC Irvine prompted shouts from the crowd, Obama remarked, "There you go, UC Irvine.  You got the little anteater," prompting some laughs. "I’ve got to say, it’s a pretty cute mascot," he added. "An anteater, it’s nice, I like it."

No word on whether the UC Santa Cruz banana slug mascot feels slighted.

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