Before you get excited about Obama's climate speech...

The president has a habit of under-delivering on environmental promises. Here's what he won't say in today's speech

Published June 25, 2013 2:24PM (EDT)

                (AP/Evan Vucci)
(AP/Evan Vucci)

Later today, President Obama will give what's being billed as a major new speech on climate change, where he's expected to announce a series of new measures the administration will take that don't need congressional approval to curb greenhouse gas emissions.

It's a welcome and overdue move, but those who believe in science should probably keep their optimism guarded and praise conditional for the moment, considering Obama's habit of promising big and delivering smaller when it comes to climate.

"This was the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal," he famously (or infamously) said when accepting the Democratic nomination five years ago.

The House of Representatives (thanks mostly to Nancy Pelosi) did pass a comprehensive cap-and-trade bill the next year, and Democrats even lost elections because of their votes on it, but the bill went nowhere in the Senate, which had become a morass while waiting on the Finance Committee to spend almost a year on the Affordable Care Act. Progressives wanted the White House to get move involved in the legislative fight on healthcare, so other agenda items like climate change and immigration reform could get in the pipeline before the 2010 election -- but Obama stuck with his strategy of letting congressional Democrats take the lead.

Of course, the bill died without even a vote in the Senate and the climate movement largely shut down. After the brutal 2010 cycle, we didn't hear much from Obama on climate change for a while, until insurgent activists outside of the mainstream environmental movement turned the Keystone XL pipeline into a cause.

More recently, we've starting hearing big talk, starting at the Democratic National Convention a year ago in Charlotte, N.C. -- "my plan will continue to reduce the carbon pollution that is heating our planet, because climate change is not a hoax" -- and then at his second inaugural -- "We will respond to the threat of climate change" -- but we have not seen much movement until now.

That's not to say the administration hasn't done anything. Obama enacted important regulations on automobile emissions, for instance, but that had the support of industry, which underscores how the administration has been loath to get in a political fight on global warming after the 2010 election.

The big ticket for climate now is emission regulations on existing power plants, which is vastly more important than the Keystone XL pipeline. The Environmental Protection Agency theoretically doesn't need Congress's approval to act, but congressional Republicans will undoubtedly make it a fight one way or another, over EPA funding or on the rules themselves -- so the administration will have to be prepared to fight. Meanwhile, industry will wage a separate war inside the administrative rule making process.

Whether the White House is willing to get into a nasty multifront war with industry and their congressional allies, while his EPA nominee gets held hostage, or whether this will just be another agenda item that's given a big rollout but little purchase remains to be seen. And why we say cautious optimism is in order.

By Alex Seitz-Wald

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