Obama’s Inaugural Speech Pins Policy to the ‘Overwhelming Judgment of Science’

President Obama’s second inaugural address succinctly captured his list of To-dos for his second term. In only 1,519 words the President laid out his plan for the next four years.

President Obama Addresses Climate Change and Importance of Science in Second Inaugural Speech, Photo Courtesy of Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

President Obama Addresses Climate Change and Importance of Science in Second Inaugural Speech, Photo Courtesy of Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

With several nods to science and basic research both as drivers of innovation and the economy, he asked the country to unite so we may educate a new generation of future scientists, technologists, engineers and mathematicians. He said the nation must find a way for foreign-born scientists who are trained in the U.S. to stay in the U.S. and not take their knowledge to other countries when they finish their advanced degrees.

He pledged new emphasis on renewable energy sources and in making the U.S. a leader as we transition away from fossil fuels.

And he vowed to fight climate change. In fact, he devoted eight sentences to climate change — more than any other topic — totaling 147 words. This surprised most people since climate change barely registered as a campaign issue and was absent from all three presidential debates in the run up to the election.

President Obama says, “We will respond to the threat of climate change, knowing that the failure to do so would betray our children and future generations. 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.”

Without saying it out loud he referenced the record-breaking wildfires across the west last summer, a raging drought that still persists across at least 40 percent of the nation and devastating storms, especially Superstorm Sandy.

He went on to say, “The path towards sustainable energy sources will be long and sometimes difficult. But America cannot resist this transition; we must lead it. We cannot cede to other nations the technology that will power new jobs and new industries — we must claim its promise. That is how we will maintain our economic vitality and our national treasure — our forests and waterways; our croplands and snowcapped peaks. That is how we will preserve our planet, commanded to our care by God. That’s what will lend meaning to the creed our fathers once declared.”

CO2 Emissions Chart over 650,000 Years. 2012 Emissions Reached 394 Parts Per Million, Courtesy of NASA

CO2 Emissions Chart over 650,000 Years. 2012 Emissions Reached 392 Parts Per Million, Courtesy of NASA

Shortly after his speech, California Democratic Senator Barbara Boxer called his words on climate change “exactly right.” And environmental groups who felt the President failed to act on climate change in his first term showed signs of cautious optimism.

The director of strategy and policy at the Union of Concerned Scientists calls Obama’s words on climate change a “clarion call to action.” Alden Meyer says it “leaves no doubt this will be a priority in his second term.”

The night before the Inauguration Vice President Joe Biden made an appearance at the Green Ball, known as the inaugural ball for the environment. There he said, “I don’t intend on ending these four years without getting an awful lot more done.” He ended his remarks by saying, “Keep the faith.”

After the President’s remarks, University of Pennsylvania climate scientist Michael Mann tells LiveScience, “I was reassured to see him reaffirm that facts matter, and that the science overwhelmingly indicates that climate change is not only real, but is already posing a serious threat to society.”

The President urged all Americans to heed the warnings of science when it comes to climate change. And he wants renewable power to supplant fossil fuels as a way to stave off the worst effects of climate change.

Former EPA director Carol Browner also praised the President, saying, “He is sending a clear signal that we can expect strong leadership from him in his second term on climate change and clean energy.”

But many scientists and environmentalists are waiting, hoping the President’s powerful words will translate into powerful action.

Environmentalist Bill McKibben says, “Very glad to hear them, and will be gladder still when he does the first and easiest thing on the list to prove he means them: reject Keystone XL.”

The Keystone pipeline, which if built would carry tar sands oil from Canada to Texas, is the first test of President Obama’s climate resolve. The Governor of Nebraska just cleared the way for the pipeline to proceed. Gov. Dave Heineman approved a revised route for the pipeline that avoids environmentally sensitive land, placing the decision to build the pipeline squarely in the hands of the Obama administration.

McKibben calls the pipeline a “global warming machine.”

Many environmental groups have been vocal opponents of the pipeline and praised the President for stalling the project last year. But now they are crossing their fingers again and hoping the President will flex his second-term political muscle and stop the pipeline and other legislation that would accelerate climate change.

During his first term President Obama almost passed cap and trade legislation which would have limited the amount of carbon dioxide that the U.S. would emit. The American Clean Energy and Security Act narrowly passed the House of Representatives 219-212 in June 2009 but then failed to win approval in a Democratically-controlled Senate. The President did enact legislation to raise the fuel efficiency standard in cars to 54 miles per gallon by 2025. And the EPA has been slowly moving to enact new regulation on newly constructed power plants (but not on existing ones.)

After Superstorm Sandy, a widespread drought, a typhoon in the Philippines and a record heat wave and fires in Australia, momentum is growing for political action on climate change.

UCS’s Meyer says, “With presidential leadership, that shift will continue and deepen over the next four years, and meaningful progress on climate change will become an important part of Barack Obama’s legacy as president.”

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