Hillary Clinton said something important about climate change this week — something that could resonate into the next presidential race. It isn’t what you’ve read about, though. Clinton gave a speech at the League of Conservation Voters, and judging by the headlines about it, you’d think the newsworthy portion was her unwillingness to take a position on the Keystone pipeline.

That is understandably frustrating to environmental activists. But now that video of the full speech is available, it’s obvious that her Keystone dodge is potentially far less important than this portion:

“You pushed for and rallied behind President Obama’s use of the Clean Air Act to set the first ever federal limits on carbon pollution from existing power plants, which are driving the most dangerous effects of climate change. As you know so well, power plants account for about 40 percent of the carbon pollution in the United States, and therefore must be addressed. And the unprecedented action that President Obama has taken must be protected at all cost.
“So this is an exciting time. From the administration’s announcement last month of a $3 billion commitment to the global green climate fund, to that new joint announcement with China, to new rules under consideration for ozone, we continue to push forward. But that is just the beginning of what is needed.”

Taking Clinton at her word, this hints at the ways in which climate could become an important issue in the 2016 race. The key is that it is a forward-looking policy statement. Clinton isn’t simply praising Obama’s environmental record. She is also saying that protecting and implementing his policies for years into the future is an urgent priority — which is to say, an urgent priority for the next president.

There is a great deal riding on the successful implementation of those policies — long after Obama leaves office. As Coral Davenport explained the other day, Obama is currently using the 1970 Clean Air Act to put in place a far-reaching environmental legacy that, most prominently, includes ambitious new regulations on existing power plants. Implementation of these regulations will reach years into the future, with the eventual goal of reducing carbon-dioxide emissions from U.S. power plants by 25 percent into the next decade, and by 30 percent by 2013.

The question of whether the U.S. successfully reduces emissions over time has important long term international ramifications. The success of the recently announced deal between the United States and China to cap or reduce emissions will turn in part on whether the U.S. meets its own goals, and as Philip Bump noted recently, this could be complicated if a Republican president takes over in 2017.

Indeed, Republicans have pledged to do everything possible to roll back Obama’s environmental regulations, and they essentially received the news of the China deal with a big shrug. What’s more, the 2016 GOP candidates might dig in even harder against Obama’s regs. After all, once Obama announced his executive action to defer deportations, that immediately supplanted Obamacare as the leading Enemy Of Freedom for the Tea Party. Next year, Obama will likely be talking about climate change a good deal more, as negotiations for a global climate treaty get underway — hopes for which were boosted by news of the U.S.-China deal. There will likely be court challenges to the new regs, which means more attention to them. They, too, could become another Tea Party preoccupation — which means the 2016 GOP presidential candidates may be expected to pledge to eradicate them once elected president.

As Ron Brownstein noted recently, climate is a key area in which Hillary will embrace Obama’s legacy, even as Republicans line up to campaign for president by vowing to unwind it. Clinton has now confirmed this, on her side, by vowing to protect Obama’s initiatives “at all cost.” The battle may shape up as one over whether the U.S. should participate in global efforts to reduce carbon emissions, and embrace all the difficult domestic policy trade-offs that will entail, or retreat from them.

Perhaps for Clinton, such promises are little more than checking a box for an important Democratic constituency (the environmental movement). Perhaps her consultants will want her to shy away from discussing climate out of fear of alienating blue collar whites in swing states. But the key architect of Obama’s climate agenda, John Podesta, is expected to play a major role on Clinton’s campaign. The Democratic coalition in national elections is less and less reliant on culturally conservative downscale whites, and Democrats are increasingly organized around the priorities — climate included — of its emerging coalition of millennials, minorities, and socially liberal college educated whites.

In the end Obama can probably increase the chances that climate change will be a real issue in 2016 simply by talking about it as much as possible. This is something he appears determined to do. And on this issue, in rhetorical terms, at least, Clinton is laying down her marker.