McClatchy Newspapers

Climate change, it seems, is no longer a dirty phrase for Democrats to disavow.

President Barack Obama promised in his second inaugural address to respond to climate change, casting it as a moral obligation and warning that failing to take action “would betray our children and future generations.”

Persuading Americans that they should care about climate change — or have a duty to do so — is one thing. Actually doing something about the emissions that contribute to rising sea levels, sooty skies and melting Arctic sea ice is a far more complex task. Despite Obama’s pledges Monday, the White House was scant with details afterward, saying only that it’s pursuing action under the existing regulatory framework.

Its work is cut out for it. It must negotiate a polarized Congress, regional energy interests and pressure from big polluters and the influential energy sector.

The industry is bracing for a fight. Some groups, such as the National Association of Manufacturers, have challenged the Environmental Protection Agency’s authority to regulate greenhouse gases under the Clean Air Act. They’ll continue to argue that regulation of greenhouse gases should come from Congress, not the executive branch, said Ross Eisenberg, the vice president of energy and resources policy for the association.

Yet those who favor action on climate change said they were hopeful, and they’ve been drawing up plans for the White House that they think match the rhetoric of the inaugural address. Obama’s re-election was the first step, said Bob Deans, a spokesman for the Natural Resources Defense Council. The next step, he and other environmentalists said, is for the president to act on his pledge.

The biggest step, major legislation that would have capped emissions and set up markets to trade pollution credits, failed in 2010 and is unlikely to be resurrected.

But there’s plenty more the administration could do without legislation, said the Clean Air Task Force, a nonprofit that’s dedicated to reducing air pollution. The task force wrote a letter to the president this month saying the administration could work to curb methane emissions from the pipeline and production system, even as domestic oil and gas production booms. They’d also like to see more attention to coal.

The most likely path in coming months may be through the EPA’s regulatory authority. The administration is finalizing emission rules for new power plants and, maybe, for existing ones, too.