Environmental groups have seized upon President Barack Obama’s surprising promotion of climate change to the top of his agenda this week, setting out a list of actions the president can take during his second term to counteract global warming without having to go through Congress.
For a start, he can block the Keystone XL oil pipeline from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico and make existing coal-fired power plants subject to tough new emissions rules, they say.
“This is a call to action against the climate chaos that is sweeping our nation and threatening our future,” said Frances Beinecke, president of the Natural Resources Defense Council. “Power plants are our single largest source of carbon pollution. We must cut that pollution.”
After a presidential campaign during which climate change was barely mentioned, Mr Obama thrilled many environmentalists with his inaugural address on Monday.
“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, raising the issue before any other pressing policy concerns such as immigration reform or the nation’s finances.
“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.
Activists are seizing on those words to rally support for climate and related initiatives.
“We know that even if the president is sincere in every syllable, he’s going to need lots of back-up to help him get his point across in a city dominated by fossil fuel interests,” Bill McKibben, founder of the 350.org campaign to fight the threat of climate change, wrote in an email to supporters following the speech.
He exhorted them to attend a rally against the Keystone pipeline in Washington on February 17, which organisers hope 25,000 people will attend.
The Obama administration is due to decide soon whether or not to allow the construction of the $7bn Keystone pipeline between Canada’s eastern tar sands and Texas.
Nebraska governor Dave Heineman on Tuesday approved a new route for the pipeline that would avoid the ecologically sensitive area of erodible, grass-covered sand dunes that it was initially planned to traverse.
In a letter to Mr Obama advising him of the decision, Mr Heineman said that TransCanada, the pipeline company, had promised to have $200m in insurance to cover clean-up from any spills in the state.
The issue has become the litmus test for Mr Obama’s energy and environmental policy, with Republicans saying his opposition shows the president is hostile to oil, while environmentalists say he cannot claim green credentials if he allows it.
But with the US in the midst of a huge shale oil and gas boom that could help the US become the world’s largest oil producer by 2020, most analysts say there is no way that the president can block the pipeline.
Instead, he should announce he is giving the project the green light at the same time as unveiling new climate initiatives, says Paul Bledsoe, a climate adviser during the Clinton administration.
“That would allow him to put it in a broader context and to reach out to Republicans and moderates,” Mr Bledsoe said.
There is no prospect of reviving plans for a cap-and-trade system to curb carbon emissions, which petered out early in Mr Obama’s first term thanks to widespread opposition from Republicans but also from Democrats in industrial and agricultural states.
That means his second term will be a continuation of his regulation-rather-than-legislation approach.
The Environmental Protection Agency has declared that climate change poses a danger to human health and welfare and has introduced the first emissions limits for cars and new power plants.
It is expected to also apply those to existing power plants, according to people close to the White House.
But Mr Obama can expect to face stiff opposition if he does put new emphasis on climate change.
“Americans have rejected environmental extremism in the past and they will again,” said Tim Phillips, president of Americans for Prosperity, the Tea Party group backed by the industrialist Koch brothers, vowing to be the “vanguard” against the administration’s policies.
To counter such opposition, Mr Bledsoe said the president should create a “bigger political tent” encompassing state governors and mayors throughout the country to build a broad coalition in support of action on climate change.