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Will Bold Deeds Follow Bold Words?

President Obama is good at bold words, and he’s delivered quite a few of them on the need for action on climate change in the last nine months. There was his speech upon being re-elected; his 2013 State of the Union (in which he promised to act unilaterally on climate change if Congress wouldn’t); and most recently his speech at the Brandenburg Gate in which he rightly labeled climate change “the global threat of our time.”

And the hyped action on climate change is almost here, with the New York Times reporting that the president may announce as soon as next week a three-pronged plan to:

  1. Put limits on carbon dioxide emissions from existing and proposed power plants;
  2. Boost renewable energy development on public lands; and
  3. Mandate greater energy efficiency in buildings and equipment.

These three steps are overdue, but would have real benefits, and will require an expenditure of political capital from Mr. Obama. But he’s hardly gone all-in on climate change of late. On some very important climate issues, the president has instead displayed a penchant for ignoring the issue or dawdling on major decisions.

Take the Keystone XL pipeline, which would bring carbon intensive, dirty tar sands oil to (but mostly through) the U.S. Pipeline opponents argue that approving Keystone will make it impossible for the planet to avoid pushing the planet’s climate beyond a “tipping point” which will lead to extremely dire consequences for our way of life. Even the extremist wackos at Scientific American are sounding alarm bells. He continues to play coy, dropping hints that he’ll approve it, but fearing to upset his base.

Or take coal exports. Increasing the flow of coal through the U.S. and sending it to China or Europe could make burning coal even more attractive there and would result in billions of tons of CO2 emissions. But the Obama administration just announced a bold policy to … completely ignore the climate impacts of coal burning made possible by coal exports. So while Obama readies a plan to reduce climate emissions from domestic power plants, he’s burying his head in the sand on the harm from fueling power plants overseas.

Or other impacts from domestic coal mining. When asked to respond to a request to limit the impacts of climate and other air pollutants from coal mines, the EPA refused, saying it was too busy on other issues. This despite the fact that coal mines are among the top industrial emitters of climate pollutants.

And then there’s the administration’s gung ho approach to coal leasing in the western U.S., which has locked in a dirty energy future by selling billions of tons of taxpayer-owned coal sold to mining firms.

President Obama has already taken some halting steps on climate change. His three-prong plan will represent a few more steps forward. Two cheers for him.

But if he is to address the “global threat of our time,” it’s time for an “all of the above” approach. Taking a few steps back while taking a few steps forward won’t get the job done.