Obama Pushes Climate Bill: Now it's Time to Keep Up the Pressure

After months of near-silence regarding any commitment to pass a climate bill this year, President Obama has begun talking about clean energy again lately. Perhaps most notable is a speech the president made Wednesday at Carnegie Mellon University, in which Obama pledged to round up enough support to push a clean energy and climate bill through the US Senate and address the root causes of climate change.

The president’s new strategy for passing a climate bill seems to include avoiding the term “climate change” itself, and capitalizing on public anger at oil companies and the fossil fuel industries. If it works, this approach could prove to be our best chance at passing a climate bill this year.

Just as the president declined to actually use the term “climate change” Wednesday, Obama never named a specific piece of climate legislation in his remarks. Yet parts of his speech (you can read the whole thing here) clearly referred to the American Power Act, a bill introduced this spring by Senators John Kerry (D-MA) and Joseph Lieberman (I-CT). “The votes may not be there right now,” Obama said in his speech, “but I intend to find them in the coming months.”

It remains to be seen if the president follows through on that pledge. Considering the power fossil fuel industries hold in the US Senate, there is likely no way to pass a climate bill this year without a wholehearted effort by Obama to prioritize it. Yet Wednesday’s speech was a definite step in the right direction. Now every progressive senator needs to get on-board and talk to their colleagues about passing a climate bill. Every environmental group needs to make the push for a bill that will put a price on carbon and drastically reduce carbon emissions. Progressives need to unite around this goal and get a climate bill through the Senate. In the president’s own words Wednesday, “The time has come, once and for all, for this nation to fully embrace a clean energy future.”

Now it’s important to point out the American Power Act isn’t perfect—not even close. The bill’s official goal of reducing carbon emissions 17% below 2005 levels by 2020 is nowhere near what’s needed to prevent the worst effects of climate change. It also includes investments in such environmentally unsound ideas as nuclear power, “clean coal,” and even offshore oil drilling—ironic, because Obama cited the offshore BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico as one the major reasons a bill that cracks down on fossil fuels is needed.

But the final language of the American Power Act has yet to be finalized. We now have a chance to improve that language as much as possible, while pressuring Obama and the US Senate to pass a climate bill this year. The offshore drilling provisions, added to the bill before the BP Gulf disaster, are an obvious place to start making improvements. With public opinion turning against oil companies and offshore drilling, it may be politically realistic to remove drilling expansions from the American Power Act and make this a bill about getting tough on oil.

Indeed that may be the best hope we have of passing the American Power Act, or any other climate legislation. Obama seems to have come to the realization that most Americans aren’t particularly focused on climate change right now—but they’re very, very aware of the oily disaster unfolding in the Gulf of Mexico. As Obama said on Wednesday, “The only way to is by finally putting a price on carbon pollution.” In other words, cracking down on Big Oil and curbing the effects of climate change are part of a single goal.

For Obama, the next steps should be to address the full Senate on the need to pass a climate bill, and continue pushing the message in public as much as possible. You can help by contacting your senators and asking them to prioritize climate change and clean energy. It’s taken a long time for the climate to pick up momentum at the federal level. But the slow and grinding process of passing a climate bill may finally have begun.

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