After a starring role in 2013, look for just a climate change cameo in this year's State of the Union

The World
President Barack Obama pauses and wipes his forehead as he speaks about his vision to reduce carbon pollution while preparing the country for the impacts of climate change, at Georgetown University in Washington, June 25, 2013.

President Barack Obama pauses and wipes his forehead as he speaks about his vision to reduce carbon pollution while preparing the country for the impacts of climate change, at Georgetown University in Washington, June 25, 2013.

Larry Downing/Reuters

Seven paragraphs. That’s how much of last year’s State of the Union address President Barack Obama devoted to climate change and related issues.

It was a huge amount of time for any issue, short of war or the economy, and seemed to signal a new emphasis on an issue that many felt had lingered in the shadows of this administration far too long.

The breakthrough moment came partly because the freshly re-elected president still had November’s wind at his back, but mostly because the winds of superstorm Sandy had barely finished ravishing the Northeast. The wounds of Sandy were still raw and the fingerprints of climate change were found all over the scene of the crime. As awful as it was, it was something of a political gift to the president, and he used the moment to renew his appeal to Congress to pass a comprehensive climate bill.

But given the realities of the current Congress, he also all but acknowledged the futility of that plea, and promised the administration would move on its own. Which it did, in June, when Obama unveiled his climate action plan, a list of measures the administration could take unilaterally, without Congressional approval. Among other things, it promised tighter regulations on coal-fired power plants, a high environmental bar for evaluating the controversial Keystone XL pipeline, and to start taking climate change into account in everything government does.

Well, that was last year. This year, if you want to hear what the president has to say about climate change, I’d suggest you don’t leave the living room even for a fresh bowl of chips.

Maybe it’s because he doesn’t really think the problem is as serious as he suggested last year, but I chalk it up to the realities of politics and the way this particular concern oozes in and out of the public’s mind, even as it gets inexorably worse.

2013 was a tough year for Obama. His political agenda is still slamming up against an immovable Congress, and if he harbors even a sliver of hope for easing the DC political standoff and accomplishing anything legislatively over the rest of his term, he knows he’s got to focus on stuff that’s going to rally the largest possible part of the public.

Income inequality is the big issue in the US right now, with good reason, and one the president wants to make his own. It also plays well into Obama’s signature accomplishment, the health care overhaul, which after a very rocky start is slowly starting to work in his favour again.

So expect the president to go big on the equity issue tonight, and look for a lot less on the climate and a bunch of other issues that, right now, are last year’s news.

But that in itself is another key reason climate likely will fall largely beyond the president’s spotlight. As a rule, State of the Union speeches are driven more by the politics of the moment than by difficult long-term issues. Climate change by its very nature is mostly a drip, drip, drip of bad news and incrementally more urgent warnings that it’s getting really serious, and that the time to deal with it is running out. Occasionally a single riveting event like Sandy focuses Americans’ minds on it, but the moment passes and more acute issues and concerns again push it off the country’s to-do list.

And what about the one really big, extremely charged climate-related issue the president will have to face this year, the decision on the Keystone Pipeline that would bring oil from the tar sands of Canada to the Midwest? Climate activists have made it their litmus test for Obama’s seriousness on the issue, while those still tied to the old energy economy, including many Democrats, are all but demanding that the president pick up a shovel and start digging himself.

But don’t expect the president to bring it up tonight. There’s just nothing in it for him politically. Obama laid out his standard for evaluating Keystone last year, and the decision on whether to approve it is entirely on him and Secretary of State John Kerry. On Keystone, the only person he needs to move is himself.

Of course, hottest climate related issue on his desk won’t be entirely out of the spotlight tonight. Tom Steyer, the zillionaire environmentalist who’s trying to be the sort of liberal counterweight to the Koch brothers in terms of injecting big money into politics, is bookending the speech on MSNBC with ads urging the president to reject the pipeline. 

So as always, even on his one big night, the president won’t get to control the agenda.