Environmentalists lauded US President Barack Obama when he raised the issue of global warming in his second inaugural address on 21 January, but the truth is that he said nothing new. Obama kept it simple, short and vague, discussing climate change as a moral imperative while declaring clean energy a battleground for innovation. It was a generic vision for a pragmatic president, which is to his credit. But if Obama truly wants to leave his mark on the climate debate, he will need to break out of the mould and lay the foundation for something larger.

His initial focus is likely to be a trio of energy decisions, on a pipeline and a pair of rules for power plants (see page 590). The first decision relates to the Keystone XL pipeline, which would carry oil from the Canadian tar sands to the Gulf Coast refineries. The other two are climate regulations that focus on new and existing power plants. Combined, these two rules could prevent any conventional coal-fired plant from being built in the United States, while giving electricity generation another boost towards using plentiful natural gas.

They give Obama an early opportunity to build some goodwill across the political spectrum. First, the administration should issue strong regulations for power plants and send a message to the coal industry: clean up or fade away. The energy utilities will duly cry foul, but the same companies are already powering down old and inefficient coal-fired power plants in favour of natural-gas plants. Why? Because natural gas is cheap and burns more cleanly than coal, helping companies to meet increasingly stringent air-quality regulations.

Second, regarding the Keystone pipeline, the administration should face down critics of the project, ensure that environmental standards are met and then approve it. As Nature has suggested before (see Nature 477, 249; 2011), the pipeline is not going to determine whether the Canadian tar sands are developed or not. Only a broader — and much more important — shift in energy policy will do that. Nor is oil produced from the Canadian tar sands as dirty from a climate perspective as many believe (some of the oil produced in California, without attention from environmentalists, is worse).Tar-sands development raises serious air- and water-quality issues in Canada, but these problems are well outside Obama’s jurisdiction.

By approving Keystone, Obama can bolster his credibility within industry and among conservatives. The president can also take advantage of rising domestic oil and gas production to defuse concerns over energy security. And the fact that US emissions are apparently dropping, thanks to the economic crisis and the ongoing shift from coal to gas for electricity generation as well as state and federal policies, further plays into his hands. But all will be for naught unless the president can build on these trends and somehow reset the climate discussion.

Driving down the cost of low-carbon energy might even unlock political solutions.

The foundation for this re-engagement could be a good old-fashioned strategic research and development (R&D) programme for clean energy. The United States’ current US$4-billion energy-research portfolio is not up to the task, and almost everybody recognizes as much. In 2010, the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology recommended boosting the federal energy-innovation budget to $16 billion. The Brookings Institution, a Washington DC think tank, has argued that even a small carbon tax could provide up to $30 billion annually for energy research. If these numbers seem high, keep in mind that in fiscal year 2012, the United States spent an estimated $73 billion on defence-related R&D and more than $31 billion on health-related R&D.

These ideas have been floating around in the scientific community for some time. Some extra money will be needed, but organizations such as the Clean Air Task Force, based in Boston, Massachusetts, are looking at ways to better direct energy subsidies and use existing government spending to drive new markets for advanced technologies.

The Obama administration might be able to put the United States on track to meet its Copenhagen commitment to reduce emissions to 17% below 2005 levels by 2020. It can seek immediate climate benefits by pushing international initiatives that reduce emissions of black carbon, methane and other powerful greenhouse gases. But given the current political deadlock over climate regulation on Capitol Hill, Obama must also develop a long game that will help to get the United States, and hopefully the world, to where it wants to be several decades from now. Driving down the cost of low-carbon energy might even unlock political solutions in the future.