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Groups: Keystone XL Decision Will Show If Obama's Climate Promises Are Real or Just Rhetoric

President's inaugural delivers fine words on meeting the challenge of global warming, but action needed and fast

Jon Queally, staff writer

If you want to know if the lofty rhetoric on climate change included in Obama's second inaugural address on Monday was all talk or a projection of a real shift in policy priorities, environmental campaigners say the evidence will be available soon enough.

For real evidence that there's serious intent behind his words, groups say people need look no further than his upcoming decision to approve or deny permission for the Keystone XL oil pipeline.

The president's words on climate change were welcome by green advocates following the speech, but only with the caveat that meaningful and swift action—not empty words—is what's needed to face the dire and immediate challenges we face.

In his speech on Monday, Obama said:

We, the people, still believe that our obligations as Americans are not just to ourselves, but to all posterity. We will respond to the threat of climate change, knowing that the failure to do so would betray our children and future generations. 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.

The path towards sustainable energy sources will be long and sometimes difficult. But America cannot resist this transition; we must lead it. We cannot cede to other nations the technology that will power new jobs and new industries – we must claim its promise. That is how we will maintain our economic vitality and our national treasure – our forests and waterways; our croplands and snowcapped peaks. 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.

There was widespread agreement among many that this was the president's most forceful language yet on the subject, but that didn't keep observers from recognizing that—due to the urgency dictated by growing warnings from climate scientists and the almost daily examples of global warming's impact on extreme weather, rising ocean levels, inland flooding, and prolonged droughts—words by themselves will do nothing to solve the crisis.

"We can no longer talk about climate change as an ominous threat on the horizon; the climate has changed and what we saw last year is only a small bitter taste of our common future if action is not taken immediately to alter course." – Kumi Naidoo, Greenpeace

"Obama sounded good on climate," tweeted co-founder Bill McKibben immediately following the speech, but added caustically, "We'll see."

President of the NRDC, Frances Beinecke, said Obama's speech was a "call to action against the climate chaos that is sweeping our nation and threatening our future."

But now, she said, "It's time to act.”

Later in the day McKibben's group, which is planning a large rally at the White Houe in February to push Obama to once and for all reject permits to build the Keystone XL pipeline that would bring tar sands oil through the United States for refining and export, sent out an message to its members citing Obama's speech and saying:

With words like that, it's easy to let ourselves dream that something major might be about to happen to fix the biggest problem the world has ever faced.

But we know that even if the President is sincere in every syllable, he's going to need lots of backup to help him get his point across in a city dominated by fossil fuel interests. And, given the record of the last four years, we know that too often rhetoric has yielded little in the way of results.

The group told its members that they would arrive at Obama's White House and deliver him a clear message: "If you're serious about protecting future generations from climate change, stop the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline. If you can do that, Mr. President, we can all work together to help build a climate legacy that will be a credit to your critical eight years in office."

And, as author and editor of YES! Magazine Sarah van Gelder writes, "Stepping up to the climate challenge need not compete with the other goals [Obama] outlined in his inauguration speech. Building a clean energy economy will produce good jobs that lift more people into the middle class and build a sustainable and widely shared prosperity. Reducing fossil fuel pollutants will improve our health and reduce healthcare costs."

Greenpeace also pivoted on the inaugural address, saying they believed the president wants to "do the right thing and move this country forward" and that they would help in very specific ways to help him achieve the goals embedded in his rhetoric.  In fact, they put out a five part plan for the task, which included:

1) Put a final period on the end of “No Keystone Pipeline.”
We’re sick of hearing “for now” at the end of this statement. Not only does the pipeline put us at risk of an unthinkable spill, it’s not the answer to progress for America’s energy future. It’s just the same, old dirty energy in a new, cylinder-shaped package.

2) Accelerate the expansion of clean, safe renewable energy.
The clean energy industry needs your support rather than massive oil companies, dirty coal utilities and natural gas. When the United States invests in clean energy technology, we’re investing in our future.

3) Make carbon unaffordable.
Why is it so cheap to quicken climate change and poison Americans? We need you to stand up to polluters, President Obama. They’re putting our health at risk, our homes at risk and our countries at risk. And you’re making it laughably easy to do so.

4) Save the Arctic.
After months of campaigning to save the Arctic from oil companies looking to profit from record-low sea ice in our global air conditioner, we were thrilled to hear Shell’s announcement that they would no Arctic drilling in 2012. However, we know it’s only a matter of time before Shell, or another company, gives it another go. We need President Obama to grant no permits to any company to drill for oil in Arctic.

5) Support communities most impacted by climate change.
In 2012, Hurricane Sandy showed us how quickly a superstorm can wipe out everything your entire livelihood. Unfortunately, climate change events can come in the form of a destructive wildfire, a devastating drought or sudden powerful storms. President Obama has to plan for the reality of climate change and help those Americans that are always left to clean up the mess.

As Kumi Naidoo, executive director of Greenpeace International, wrote recently: "We can no longer talk about climate change as an ominous threat on the horizon; the climate has changed and what we saw last year is only a small bitter taste of our common future if action is not taken immediately to alter course."

"I hope, I expect, and I appeal on behalf of current and future generations that 2013 goes down in history as the year that governments, industry and civil society secured our planet for current and future generations," he concluded.

We'll see.

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