Obama's State of the Union Speech Highlights US Renewable Achievements, Climate Change Goals

President Obama has been under intense scrutiny for what he would do about climate change ever since he was elected in 2008. Part of that scrutiny takes place during his State of the Union Speech, when renewable energy proponents search for key words about solar and wind energy and count how often he mentions "climate change."

That exercise took place last night during Obama's annual address. He was generous with the discussion on the warming planet and its impact, and he used renewable energy as an engine for job growth. That willingness to devote time in his address to these topics reflect partly the fact that he's nearing the end of his second term, when he would certainly want to work on leaving a nice legacy rather than wooing skeptics to get re-elected. 

That drive has become evident over the year, when he directed the Environmental Protection Agency to tighten pollution regulations, from carbon emissions to smog, moves that were meant to prompt states to support renewable energy generation and create cap-and-trade programs that force heavy polluters to pay for their carbon emissions.

Obama used his State of the Union to tout the boom of clean energy when he said that "Every three weeks, we bring online as much solar power as we did in all of 2008." He trumpeted the fact that America is number one in wind production, and highlighted the job-creation benefits of investing in all sorts of technology, including "converting sunlight into liquid fuel." Though Obama didn't explain the concept, he appeared to be referencing research on using sunlight to electrochemically split water into hydrogen and oxygen and using the hydrogen as fuel for generating electricity or powering cars.

More importantly, though, Obama devoted quite some time to describing the growing risks of droughts, hunger and conflicts when we don't change our behavior that contributes to climate change. He jabbed at Republican lawmakers for using the refrain, "I'm not a scientist" to avoid discussing or refuting the existence of climate change.

He then highlighted the work his administration already has done to address climate change, including striking a deal with China to limit carbon emissions.

"That's why, over the past six years, we've done more than ever before to combat climate change, from the way we produce energy, to the way we use it. That's why we've set aside more public lands and waters than any administration in history," he said.

While the president made it clear again that he doesn't support the Keystone pipeline project ("So let's set our sights higher than a single oil pipeline."), Obama stuck to his "all of the above" energy policy by giving a shout out to oil and gas. It was a very brief mention, but it acknowledges the country's continual dependence on fossil fuels.

"We believed we could reduce our dependence on foreign oil and protect our planet. And today, America is number one in oil and gas. America is number one in wind power," Obama noted. "And thanks to lower gas prices and higher fuel standards, the typical family this year should save $750 at the pump."

The president used his State of the Union speech of 2015 to send a much clearer message about his support of clean energy and other environmental legislation. It was a departure from certain years when "climate change" was a politically unwise term to use.

It has also been a while since the early days of Obama's first term, when a climate change bill that would set emission reduction and renewable energy generation goals — and put a price on carbon — died before it reached his desk. That type of comprehensive pack still won't be a go this time around, especially given the Republicans' success at retaking control of Congress. But Obama can use his executive power to more freely push for change now that he's building out the remainder of his resume as the Leader of the Free World. Let's hope that what he sets in motion will be here to stay.

Lead image: Everett Collection via Shutterstock

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Ucilia Wang is a California-based freelance journalist who writes about renewable energy. She previously was the associate editor at Greentech Media and a staff writer covering the semiconductor industry at Red Herring. In addition to Renewable Energy World, she writes for Earth2tech/GigaOm, Forbes,Technology Review (MIT) and PV Magazine. You can reach her at uciliawang@gmail.com. Follow her on Twitter: @UciliaWang

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