By Patrick Rucker
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Barack Obama said on Monday he will confront climate change in his second term in office, an unexpected vow that puts the politically charged issue among his domestic priorities alongside gun control and immigration reform.
Linking climate change to devastating weather and fires, Obama said the country could grow its economy while protecting itself from the worst effects of a phenomenon scientists say is getting worse due to man-made pollutants.
"We will respond to the threat of climate change, knowing that the failure to do so would betray our children and future generations," the president said, dedicating more than a minute of his roughly 20-minute address to the issue.
By pointing to the topic in detail in his second Inaugural Address, the Democratic president committed the White House to try to mitigate the emission of greenhouse gases - an area where he had uneven success during his first four years in office.
While Obama won a commitment from the auto industry to increase fuel efficiency standards in coming years, a more comprehensive plan to put a price on greenhouse gases fell flat in Congress.
Climate change was a mostly dormant issue during last year's presidential campaign, and environmentalists hoped that Obama would put the topic squarely on his agenda in a second term.
Obama said in his address that the United States should be a leader in sustainable energy and framed the issue as a matter of national security and economic opportunity.
"We cannot cede to other nations the technology that will power new jobs and new industries - we must claim its promise," he said.
Scientists say emissions from cars and coal-fed power plants are among the sources of carbon dioxide warming the planet.
Last year was the hottest on record in the United States, scientists at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said this month.
Scientists caution that no single weather event can be blamed on climate change, but the force of Hurricane Sandy, which devastated parts of New York and New Jersey in October, and a withering drought in the Midwest, are seen as harbingers.
"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," Obama said.
Climate change activists, who say the phenomenon is worsening and will increasingly affect human health and budgets, said they were heartened by the president's words.
"My hope is renewed," Larry Schweiger, president of the National Wildlife Federation, said in a statement. "Confronting climate change is not a cause of a president or a party but an imperative for the American people."
Obama might find it impossible to revive the climate bill while his Republican Party rivals control the House of Representatives, but White House officials have said they plan to use executive power to make progress on the issue.
"I'll tell you what my green dream is: that we finally face up to climate change," Vice President Joe Biden said at a National Wildlife Federation inaugural celebration on Sunday night.
In the coming months, the Environmental Protection Agency is expected to outline standards for power plant emissions. If those rules are as strong as environmentalists want, it could go a long way toward curtailing emissions for a source of 40 percent of the country's carbon gas.
(Additional reporting by Valerie Volcovici; Editing by Mohammad Zargham)