The test of President Barack Obama's seriousness about addressing climate change is not his pending decision on the much-debated Keystone XL pipeline. It's whether he effectively consigns coal-fired power plants — one of the biggest sources of carbon emissions — to the ashcan of history.
Since his re-election, Obama has signaled a new focus on climate change. “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,” he said in an inaugural address that devoted eight sentences to the issue, more than he spent on any other item on his policy agenda.
The strong words from Obama were a welcome surprise. Few doubted that the president understood and accepted the scientific consensus about humankind's impact on the climate. His dramatic toughening of automobile fuel-economy standards, announced last year, was a major step that will eventually produce great benefits. But it has been unclear whether he is prepared to take similarly bold action to mitigate the other big source of atmospheric carbon dioxide: emissions from power plants.
“If Congress won't act soon to protect future generations, I will,” Obama vowed in his State of the Union speech. That's what I'd call unequivocal.
As if Obama needed more of an incentive, a new National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration study published last month in the journal Geophysical Research Letters confirms that temperatures have been rising ever since the Industrial Revolution — when the burning of fossil fuels dramatically increased — just as climate scientists have been telling us.
The difference with this study is that it does not rely on direct temperature readings, which climate-change skeptics deride as skewed and unreliable. Nor does it use data from examination of tree rings. Instead, it relies on proxy data from 173 sources such as ice cores, lake and ocean sediments, mineral deposits and historical records of agricultural harvests — all of which are sensitive to temperature. Plotted on a graph, the upward trend looks just like climate scientists said it would.