The Washington Post

Obama adds climate change to lengthy to-do list

President Obama didn't go into too many specifics during his second inaugural address on Monday. He didn't even mention guns, for example.

But one area where he was pretty emphatic was climate change.

"We will respond to the threat of climate change, knowing that the failure to do so would betray our children and future generations," Obama said. "Some may still deny the overwhelming judgment of science, but none can avoid the devastating impact of raging fires, and crippling drought, and more powerful storms. The path towards sustainable energy sources will be long and sometimes difficult.  But America cannot resist this transition; we must lead it."

(David Gray-Reuters)

Even as Obama has expressed a desire to get some things done on the debt, guns and immigration in recent weeks, climate change has not been as much of a focal point.

Obama's decision to include the issue in his speech, then, signals that he's at least hoping to pursue yet another very difficult legislative goal.

And climate change is about as difficult as any of the other items.

While polling shows there is broad agreement that the planet is getting hotter and that the number and severity of bad weather events have increased, legislating the issue is another matter entirely.

For one, there is still significant disagreement over just why the planet is warming.

A recent AP/Gfk poll found that about 80 percent of Americans said both that the planet is warming and that the results of inaction on climate change would be "very serious" or "somewhat serious."

But just 31 percent of Americans said that scientists' version of events should be trusted either "completely" or "a lot." Another 36 percent say they should only be trusted a "moderate" amount, and 32 percent said they should be trusted only "a little" or "not at all."

Legislating the issue is even more difficult than finding a public consensus. As with guns, the issue is very partisan but also very regional, with conservative Democrats and Democrats from energy producing districts joining with Republicans to block so-called "cap and trade" legislation, which sets a maximum amount of greenhouse gases that can be emitted and then forces companies to buy and sell the right to emit them.

Democrats passed the bill (the "American Clean Energy and Security Act") in the House in 2009 when they had a 78-seat majority, but only by a narrow margin. The bill never came to a vote in the Senate, despite Democrats' effective 59-41 advantage in that chamber.

With Democrats now in the minority in the House and with a smaller Senate majority, it's hard to see how such legislation would pass now, without being significantly scaled back or without some pressing new impetus.

Even in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, there wasn't a concerted push on climate change. And given all the more time-sensitive issues on the table right now, it's unlikely climate change will become a real priority any time soon.

(As with the debt, climate change is seen as very important to many. But unless there's a firm deadline, these legislative items generally take a back seat.)

Obama's speech, then, should be seen as a signal that climate change is still on his list of things to do. The question is whether he'll have the time and the setup to get something done. And that will be very difficult on both counts.

Aaron Blake covers national politics and writes regularly for The Fix.

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