After devoting scant attention to climate change during his re-election campaign, President Obama pivoted sharply on the issue during his inauguration speech and promised to make addressing the threat of global warming a major priority in his second term.
In fact, Mr. Obama mentioned climate change eight times during his speech — more than any other policy issue — after running a campaign devoid of any ads or ambitious speeches on the controversial topic.
"We will respond to the threat of climate change, knowing that failure to do so would betray our children and future generations," Mr. Obama said Monday. "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."
Environmentalists hailed the president's pledge to take action on one of their top umbrella issues, and his comments even won him high praise on the world stage. Connie Hedegaard, the European Union's climate commissioner, and Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard both praised Mr. Obama for mentioning climate change prominently.
"Great, strong words on climate," Ms. Hedegaard tweeted. "The U.S. president could not commit stronger to delivering now."
Frances Beinecke, president of the Natural Resources Defense Council, described Mr. Obama's speech as a "call to action against the climate chaos that is sweeping our nation and threatening our future." And former Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Carol Browner said the president "is sending a clear signal that we can expect strong leadership from him in his second term on climate change and clean energy."
Yet, with the nation still stuck in an economic rut, the renewed attention to an issue that has been on the back burner has conservatives questioning the timing and whether Mr. Obama will expend the political capital necessary to keep the promise with so many other policy fights already crowding his second-term agenda.
"At at time when everyone else in the country is talking about prolonged unemployment, record spending and the debt ceiling, the president wants to talk about global warming and climate change?" asked Benjamin Cole, a spokesman for the conservative Institute for Energy Research. "It didn't go well for him with cap-and-trade the first time around. And he's not going to have the kind of support for these policy proposals [in Congress]."
Mr. Cole recalled the rebuff the president encountered in Congress trying to pass cap-and-trade legislation early in his first term.
The measure, which barely passed the then-Democrat-controlled House and died in the Senate in 2009, would have placed a limit on the amount of greenhouse gases companies can emit and set up a system in which businesses sell permits to emit the gases.
With Republicans now controlling the House, the White House faces an even higher hurdle in getting a cap-and-trade bill through Congress right now. And with such thorny issues as gun control, immigration reform and an overhaul of the tax code already on the president's plate, Democrats in Congress aren't likely to pick a fight on such a divisive environmental issue that tends to galvanize the right.
Rep. Thomas Massie, Kentucky Republican and an MIT graduate, said Tuesday he was disappointed that Mr. Obama blamed droughts on "human activity" and accused some of "denying the evidence of scientists" in his inaugural address.
"As somebody with a science-type background, I took offense at that," Mr. Massie told reporters Tuesday at a forum of congressional conservatives. "I would challenge him to show us the linkage — the undeniable linkage — between droughts and the change of the weather, and some kind of human activity."
One day after the inauguration speech, the White House hinted that the president may sidestep Congress and use executive power to pursue a form of clean-energy investments. It also could address the issue through tougher regulations from the EPA. Environmentalists want the administration to crack down on carbon-emitting plants and expand the rules so they cover existing power plants, as well as newly built ones.
White House press secretary Jay Carney said combating climate change is a major priority for Mr. Obama, who wants to build on achievements of his first-term, including implementing carbon standards for power plants and higher fuel-efficiency standards for cars and trucks.
But Mr. Carney would not divulge any specifics about the president's second-term environmental agenda.
"I'm not going to speculate for you about future actions," he said, noting that Mr. Obama looks at the issue in a "holistic way."
"He will move forward in implementing some of the actions that he took in the first term and build on the progress that was made in the first term," he said.
• Seth McLaughlin contributed to this report.
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