Pacific Swell | Southern California environment news and trends

State of the Union address and the environment

obamalead State of the Union Address and the EnvironmentEnvironmentalists who tuned in to President Obama’s State of the Union Address last night may have noticed that the speech was missing any mention of climate change.

The ‘C-Word’ Vanishes,” is how NY Times’ environmental opinion blogger Andrew Revkin titled his post about the speech. “The ‘C-word,’ climate, appears to have become to the Beltway what the ‘P-word,’ population, has been in climate treaty negotiations for a long time — unmentionable.” LA Times also noted the missing word: “[Obama] made no mention of climate change legislation, which business interests oppose and which stands little chance of passing in any case.”

But Obama did talk about some key issues environmentalists care about, including cleaner energy and cleaner transportation. The President’s plan to put more money towards developing renewable energy sources got the most attention from environmentalists. ClimateWire reports that “Obama unveiled a plan to promote renewable energies from sources like wind and the sun by slashing $4 billion annually in government subsidies to oil and gas companies.” That would mean “doubling, to 80 percent, the share of electricity generated from ‘clean energy, sources by 2035,” according to ClimateWire.

However, many noted that Obama’s definition of “clean energy” has expanded to include energy sources some environmentalist consider less than clean — like nuclear power, natural gas, and “clean coal.” To Climatewire, this expanded definition reflects Obama’s “reduced goals” due to the current political climate.

Grist’s David Roberts has a slightly different take. Pointing out that Obama’s definition of “clean energy” includes “pretty much everything except dirty coal,” David opines that “What Obama is calling on Congress to do is to reduce the amount of dirty coal America uses, from its current level — around 45 percent — to 20 percent.”

On the substance, there’s a simple reason to go right after coal. To paraphrase Willie Sutton, that’s where the pollution is. Whether it’s carbon, smog, mercury, or toxic ash, coal plants are the main sources of pollutants that kill or sickens hundreds of thousands of Americans a year. Closing down dirty coal plants serves several goals at once, from public health to climate mitigation to social justice to job creation (yes, job creation). It also opens up more competition among clean(er) sources, which can only be good for both prices and emissions.

Obama’s comments about high-speed rail also got the attention of green listeners. As ClimateWire notes, Obama said he “wants 80 percent of Americans to have high-speed rail access, and that he’ll soon release a six-year plan to fix roads, bridges and transit and establish a National Infrastructure Bank.”

Streetsblog Capitol Hill’s Tanya Snyder opines that Obama’s speech was short on specifics. “Overall, Obama shied away from specifics on infrastructure. He didn’t return to his Labor Day push for a $50 billion ‘down payment’ for infrastructure.” But Tanya also concedes Obama’s comments went about as far as expected, and that “it’s notable that Obama listed infrastructure third in a series with economic innovation and education.

Want to read exactly what Obama said about clean energy and high-speed rail? Ecotrope has excerpted the green highlights. In addition, you can discuss President Obama’s clean energy agenda with Secretary Steven Chu himself today, via an online town hall. That begins today, Wed., Jan. 26 at 9:45 am at

Photo: President Barack Obama addresses a Joint Session of Congress while delivering his State of the Union speech January 25, 2011 in Washington, DC. (Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images)