Warming to the subject

As much as this week's bone-chilling temperatures might offer "cold" comfort to those who deny its existence, the threat of climate change earned a prominent spot in President Barack Obama's inaugural address on Monday. That was welcome, if overdue, given how little discussion this enormous challenge to the nation's well-being received during last year's campaign.

For those who missed it, President Obama pledged to "respond" to climate change for the sake of future generations. He acknowledged that some still deny the "overwhelming judgment of science" but also noted its more obvious effects of recent years — raging fires, crippling droughts and more-powerful storms.

As he has in the past, he then framed the issue in terms of the economic opportunity of green energy, the need for government investment in alternatives, the high-paying jobs that would be created and the importance of becoming a global leader in the field. "That is how we will maintain our economic vitality and our national treasure — our forests and waterways; our croplands and snow-capped peaks," he told the crowd. "That is how we will preserve our planet, commanded to our care by God. That's what will lend meaning to the creed our fathers once declared."

Administration officials have already warned that this doesn't mean Mr. Obama will go back to Congress and try to push for a cap-and-trade scheme on greenhouse gases or some huge new subsidy for green energy (as he did in the first term) that he knows full well has no chance in the Republican-controlled House. Instead, he will offer a strategy similar to how he has approached gun control — do what he can by existing regulatory authority and executive orders and, where possible, seek support from Congress.

That is the correct strategy because it is the only one that has any chance for success. Until more Republicans recognize what the vast majority of climate experts have long acknowledged — that the Earth is getting hotter because of man-made influences and that the risks associated with that development are severe and fast approaching — Congress will be an unwillingly partner in most of the potential solutions.

A recent report by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration underscored the significance of the threat. It noted that 2012 was the hottest year on record for the United States by a shocking amount, with severe droughts and heat waves, tornadoes, and unusually severe storms like Hurricane Isaac and megastorm Sandy. Thousands of local weather records were broken, and scientists are already predicting more of the same this year.

Even so, it's not hard to predict where the political conversation will go. One of the most important efforts will be for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to move forward with its stricter limits on emissions from coal-fired power plants. This will elicit howls of protest from coal-producing states and those addicted to the cheaper electricity costs that come with burning coal in aging power plants with inadequate pollution controls.

The White House, in turn, will point out that if the nation fails to foster alternative energy sources such as wind and solar, the U.S. will lag behind in those rising technologies. Closer to home, that's one reason why Gov. Martin O'Malley's proposal before the General Assembly to encourage the development of offshore wind power in Maryland is so important. If we are to wean ourselves from fossil fuels and stop pumping so much carbon into the atmosphere, we are also going to have to develop alternative sources of energy to meet the public's needs.

Meanwhile, Mr. Obama will have to champion numerous incremental measures to control greenhouse gas emissions, from reducing the size of the government's own carbon footprint to pushing for higher energy-efficiency standards for a variety of consumer products. He will also have to engage and educate the public on the subject and boost private investment in green energy, conservation and other efforts to moderate the worst effects of climate change. And he will have to be a more forceful presence on the international stage, where the latest follow-up to the Kyoto accords, the UN-sponsored talks in Doha, Qatar, produced little progress.

Perhaps once these things are accomplished, the public will be ready to consider a carbon tax or a cap-and-trade system to allow for market-driven solutions that could truly drive down U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. But until that day comes, we need pragmatism and public engagement, things Mr. Obama is fully capable of providing.

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