President Barack Obama called for “meaningful progress” on tackling climate change in his State of the Union speech in Washington, DC on Tuesday night.

While acknowledging that “no single event makes a trend,” the President noted that the United States had been buffeted by extreme weather events that in many cases encapsulated the predictions of climate scientists:

But the fact is, the 12 hottest years on record have all come in the last 15. Heat waves, droughts, wildfires, and floods — all are now more frequent and intense. We can choose to believe that Superstorm Sandy, and the most severe drought in decades, and the worst wildfires some states have ever seen were all just a freak coincidence. Or we can choose to believe in the overwhelming judgment of science — and act before it’s too late.

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Obama urged greater development of clean energy and offered some specific proposals for increasing energy efficiency.

“Let’s cut in half the energy wasted by our homes and businesses over the next twenty years,” he said. “The states with the best ideas to create jobs and lower energy bills by constructing more efficient buildings will receive federal support to help make it happen.”

He also urged the adoption of a bipartisan cap-and-trade bill along the lines of efforts that were proposed by Senator John McCain and former senator Joe Lieberman in 2003, 2005, and 2007. Those efforts failed, as a result of lack of support in Congress; should a similar effort fall short again, warned Obama, then “I will direct my Cabinet to come up with executive actions we can take, now and in the future, to reduce pollution, prepare our communities for the consequences of climate change, and speed the transition to more sustainable sources of energy.”

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That the President might address climate change was widely speculated upon in the build-up to the speech. In his Washington Post blog ‘The Fix’, Chris Cilizza argued on Monday that, from a purely political standpoint, climate was an issue that Obama would do well to avoid, or at best address only tangentially. “Of 21 issues tested [in a recent pew poll], global warming ranked dead last among those priorities,” he noted.

Even so, there was some guarded optimism, stoked by reports that, according to an unnamed “official at an environmental organization”, the White House had told green groups that they were going to “like what they heard” in the speech: “In past speeches, there was a lot of, ‘I call on Congress,’” the official reportedly said. “And what I’m expecting to see more of this time is, ‘This is what my administration is going to do.’”

That was reflected by Greg Sargent’s Plum Line blog, also at the Washington Post; Sargent wrote on Tuesday morning that he expected Obama to “go big” on climate change, and presciently predicted that specifically the president would promise (or threaten, depending on one’s perspective) executive action if Congress chose not to act.

On Grist, David Roberts listed what some of those executive actions might be, ranging from ordering the Environmental Protection Agency to establish carbon emissions standards for existing power plants, to establishing new appliance and equipment efficiency standards.

ANALYSIS: Obama Hints at New Drive on Climate Change

It remains to be seen how much of what Obama proposed might come to pass. History has shown that State of the Union speeches are full of promises that remain unfulfilled.

But those yearning for meaningful action to address global warming will feel encouraged by the readiness of the president to state explicitly that, “for the sake of our children and our future, we must do more to combat climate change.”

Image: President Obama addresses the nation during his State of the Union speech. Credit: White House/iStockphoto