Is Obama finally getting serious about climate change?

Critics say the president has offered little more than hot air

Protesters demand action on Climate Change
(Image credit: David McNew/Getty Images)

Environmentalists have long accused President Obama of moving slower than a glacier when it comes to dealing with climate change. They say that despite repeated calls for forceful government action, Obama has never truly delivered, instead allowing the issue to quietly fade from view.

Close watchers of Obama's presidency have speculated that he'd use his second term to push for legacy-cementing policies, including ones that would seriously address climate change. On Wednesday, he touched on the subject, saying at a fundraiser that he didn't "have much patience for people who deny climate change."

So, after years of leaving progressives, environmental activists, and even Al Gore feeling left out, is the president finally preparing to make climate change a central aspect of his presidency?

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The president's campaign-turned-advocacy group, Organizing for Action, may quietly be taking steps to revive the issue. OFA is launching a massive grassroots push in at least 20 states to lay a foundation that will allow future environmental legislation to flourish. The first order of business is to discredit the climate change denials that have been propagated by Republican politicians and conservative media outlets.

"Our mission is to change the conversation on climate," Ivan Frishberg, the head of that campaign, told the National Journal. "A lot of our work is focused on changing the conversation in the American public, so that members of Congress can act."

Still, that hasn't appeased environmental advocacy groups, some of which have vowed to protest OFA events over objections to the group's silence on the Keystone XL pipeline, which many believe the president will ultimately approve.

And as the New Yorker's Ryan Lizza noted, Obama passed up a huge chance to make concrete proposals on the environment. Climate change was a "glaring omission" from the ambitious budget Obama unveiled last month, Lizza said. Calling it a "major dodge," Lizza went on to argue that the budget revealed that Obama's call for Congress to take action was "an empty piece of rhetoric," because the budget was "silent on what Obama will do to aggressively reduce carbon pollution by the biggest emitters, like power plants and automobiles."

As he pointed out, the Supreme Court has already handed the president, through the Environmental Protection Agency, broad authority to regulate carbon emissions. Yet Obama hasn't used that authority to circumvent a deadlocked Congress, or least not as often as environmentalists would like. Indeed, ten states threatened to sue the EPA for missing a deadline to set new rules for future power plant emissions.

However, others argue that Obama has been a good steward of the environment. As New York's Jonathan Chait pointed out, under Obama, carbon dioxide emissions have fallen, vehicle emissions standards have gone up, and the government has poured tons of new funding into green technology and research.

"The assumption that Obama's climate-­change record is essentially one of failure is mainly an artifact of environmentalists' understandably frantic urgency," he said. "The sort of steady progress that would leave activists on other issues giddy does not satisfy the sort of person whose waking hours are spent watching the glaciers melt irreversibly."

Even Gore gave Obama some credit, saying he'd "accomplished more than any president before him" in combating climate change.

Obama's second term is just four months old, and he's spent the bulk of that time working on massive gun control and immigration bills. So while some have asked where the president is hiding his climate change agenda, the answer may be that it's right around the corner.

Then again, we've heard that line before, too.

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Jon Terbush

Jon Terbush is an associate editor at covering politics, sports, and other things he finds interesting. He has previously written for Talking Points Memo, Raw Story, and Business Insider.