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In the State of the Union, Obama pledges strong action on climate

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During President Obama’s speech tonight, he announced many different ways he would use the executive branch to pursue strong action on climate change. For longtime readers, this is old hat by now; I’ve been over how the EPA can use its pollution authority to cut back on carbon emissions several times. The policy framework hasn’t changed.

President Obama delivers his annual State of the Union address Tuesday night on Capitol Hill. (Video: The Associated Press)

Instead, this is a good signal that President Obama intends to finish what he has started. To a first approximation, climate change is about coal. The oldest and filthiest coal-fired power plants are already being retired, squeezed by cheap natural gas and ever-cheaper renewables on one side, and the EPA on the other. With a bit of luck, and if the president keeps up the pressure, by the time he hands off to his successor coal will be on a permanently downward trajectory.

Here’s the money quote:

Over the past eight years, the United States has reduced our total carbon pollution more than any other nation on Earth. But we have to act with more urgency – because a changing climate is already harming western communities struggling with drought, and coastal cities dealing with floods.  That’s why I directed my administration to work with states, utilities, and others to set new standards on the amount of carbon pollution our power plants are allowed to dump into the air.

The final sentence is the key one. Remember, the EPA still hasn’t even finalized its rule for carbon pollution from existing coal-fired power plants, yet it has managed to close down dozens of plants using rules governing mercury and particulate emissions. Should it come out with an even slightly aggressive rule, it could force all coal plants to eventually shut down.

Doing that tomorrow would be ill-advised, but if phased in over a decade or so, the long-term benefits would be spectacular.

Obama also mentioned he would use his authority under the Antiquities Act to dedicate new national monuments. Depending on priorities, this could also be used to cut back on climate emissions, as Bill Clinton did when he used that authority to lock up 62 billion tons of coal with the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. There are many such areas that could be protected with new monuments.

In any case, the bottom line is clear: This president intends to make use of his final years in office to make a serious dent in climate emissions. As he said during the address: “When our children’s children look us in the eye and ask if we did all we could to leave them a safer, more stable world, with new sources of energy, I want us to be able to say yes, we did.”

It’s a good thought. A century from now, climate policy will be about the only thing anybody remembers about this political era. Legislation from Congress is still needed, badly, but at least somebody in the government is doing something about our most urgent long-term problem.