Photograph by Ross D. Franklin, AP

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President Barack Obama, seen here speaking at an oil and gas field in New Mexico last year, is expected to map out a path on climate change action in his State of the Union address.

Photograph by Ross D. Franklin, AP

How Bold a Path on Climate Change in Obama’s State of the Union?

President Obama is expected to outline more aggressive action on climate change in his big speech, but political and economic realities will shape his plan.

If his inaugural address was any indication, President Obama has big plans for finally addressing global warming in his second term. "We will respond to the threat of climate change, knowing that the failure to do so would betray our children and future generations," he said after the took his oath of office. It's not just about weather, he pointed out, but about energy technology, new industries and, in the broadest sense, economic growth.

In tonight's State of the Union, Obama is expected to outline the path forward on climate. But what could the president do to break the logjam that has stymied action both in Washington, and globally, on reducing fossil-fuel emissions?

Advocates of the market-based cap-and-trade approach to curbing carbon dioxide appeared to make headway early in Obama's first term with a hard-fought measure that passed the House. But some environmentalists were rankled by the compromises, and the green movement never united behind the bill. Meanwhile industry opponents launched a ferocious and well-funded campaign to kill it. Obama, battling economic crisis from his first hours in office, spent much of his political capital pushing through his health-care initiative while climate action died a slow death in the Senate. (See related story: "California Tackles Climate Change, But Will Others Follow?")

Evolving Public Opinion

At the start of Obama's second term, though, Al Gore's favorite sound bite—that political will is a renewable resource—may have some validity. Extreme weather has roiled nearly every corner of the United States in Obama's first four years of office; whether due to drought, wildfire, or Hurricane Sandy, public perceptions have shifted. A new Duke University survey found the percentages of Americans who think the climate is changing and that this change is caused by human activity have reached their highest levels since 2007.

The challenge is that while 64 percent of Americans support regulation to reduce fossil-fuel emissions, the survey found little support for either cap-and-trade or an outright tax on carbon.

Given that reality and partisanship on Capitol Hill, there's little possibility for broad agreement on a large systematic program for ramping down greenhouse gas emissions. But White House officials, scientists, and analysts think the options are far from limited. (See related story: "10 Ways Obama Could Fight Climate Change.") A president coming to grips with the perils of a warming planet still has options, many of which, for better or worse, require no congressional approval at all.

"The key challenge for the president is to localize and specify the ways climate change affects people in their communities," says Paul Bledsoe, an environmental-policy strategist and former member of the U.S. Climate Change Task Force. "The best place to do that isn't in Washington, D.C., it's out there with mayors, business people and communities where the impacts are occurring."

So after reaching the big State of the Union audience (38 million viewers in 2012), expect follow-up with campaign-style events around the nation, where Obama could shine light on local impact and remove the issue from the Washington malaise.

Obama has used his executive pen in the past without much disruption or despair. Last year, his administration finalized rules mandating that car manufacturers would have to double the average efficiency of their fleets to 54.5 miles per gallon (23 kilometers per liter) by 2025. (See related pictures: "A Rare Look Inside Carmakers' Drive for 55 MPG.") The ramp-up in standards already is flattening U.S. gasoline consumption, accelerating the scrapping of old dirty cars, and encouraging technology innovation, all thanks to one signature.

There's a growing belief among White House advisers that Obama could do something similar with existing coal power plants; the dirtiest ones are responsible for a disproportionately large chunk of America's greenhouse-gas emissions, as well as particulate matter and toxins like mercury. (See related photos: "At 50, Centralia Mine Fire Still Burns With Meaning.") Bolstered by a Supreme Court decision affirming its authority to act, Obama's Environmental Protection Agency is set to finalize limits on greenhouse gas emissions for new coal power plants in a few weeks. The industry has staved off regulation of older plants, arguing it could increase the price of electricity and hurt economic recovery. But thanks to abundant U.S. natural-gas production due to hydraulic fracturing, the economics of the electric-power industry have changed dramatically. Many power companies already are shutting down old coal plants and switching to cleaner-burning natural gas. The switching already has curbed U.S. emissions; Obama could seize the moment to accelerate the process.

Challenges Ahead

Obama is also thought to be considering moves on energy efficiency, saving money for consumers while curbing emissions. The Alliance to Save Energy's National Commission on Energy Efficiency Policy last week proposed a set of efficiency steps for buildings, industry, and transportation that it concluded would reduce U.S. carbon-dioxide emissions by one third, while cutting household energy costs, reducing energy imports, and increasing GDP. The commission concluded it was possible to double energy productivity—the output from the power the U.S. already produces—by 2030. "Doubling our energy productivity will yield huge returns for our economy and increase our competitiveness," said Senator Mark Warner of Virginia, commission co-chair and one of the moderate Democrats who are key to action on climate on Capitol Hill.

But not all of the energy and climate decisions that Obama faces have win-win solutions.

Climate activists have rallied in opposition to the Keystone XL pipeline, the controversial project to carry oil from tar sands in western Canada south to refineries in the Gulf of Mexico. The State Department delayed the project in late 2011 for further environmental review. (See related photos: "Animals That Blocked Keystone XL Pipeline Path.") But leading analysts think Obama will soon give a green light to the project, which has been rerouted around environmentally sensitive areas in Nebraska. The issue has turned into a major showdown, with a large rally on Washington planned for this weekend. Can Obama assuage those concerned about oil sands' large greenhouse-gas emissions, while maintaining true to his commitment to an "all-of-the-above" energy policy?

Energy analysts at the Brookings Institution, a centrist think tank, see an opportunity for Obama to use his high-profile speech to bring together both sides of the climate-change debate. He could nod to opening up new land for drilling with less red tape, while at the same time proposing an elusive carbon tax that reduces aggregate U.S. emissions over time. "I think he needs to propose some kind of grand bargain or practical accommodation to unite the factions," said Kevin Massy, associate director of Brookings' Energy Security Initiative.

Such a debate would take time and considerable energy to hammer out. But the challenge is great. While enough small measures could help reduce emissions by 17 percent below 2005 levels by 2020 (the goal of the climate bill that died early in his first term), climate scientists caution that won't be enough to avert the worst impacts of global temperature rise.

One of the elusive holy grails is a long-term goal set at the United National climate conference in Copenhagen the year Obama first took office. Whether the United States can drop its emissions 80 percent below 2005 levels by 2050 will be the real measure of how aggressively the U.S. confronted climate change.

By then, Obama's presidency will be a distant memory. But it falls to him to lay the groundwork now to reach that goal. Whether it does, Obama seems newly aware, may greatly impact how he is remembered.

Follow the State of the Union speech live Tuesday night from 9 p.m. ET on Twitter: @natgeodan and @natgeolive

Read Daniel Stone's National Geographic blog, Change Reaction. This story is part of a special series that explores energy issues. For more, visit The Great Energy Challenge.