Photo: dcblog / Flickr
In the waning days of his presidency, Barack Obama did his finest Teddy Roosevelt imitation, taking steps to protect the environment by establishing national monuments, safeguarding vast swathes of sea from fossil-fuel exploration and setting aside hundreds of millions of dollars to tackle climate change.
These moves are more than an attempt by Obama to cement what has become a formidable environmental legacy; they are a series of shrewd maneuvers meant to stymie the Trump Administration, which is brimming with climate deniers, oil barrons and enemies of science. Indeed, the official White House website has already been updated, and there is nary a mention of climate change.
But Obama’s environmental policy has been slow to evolve, almost to the point that it has appeared reactionary. This is unsurprising. Obama is first and foremost a pragmatist. Just as his support for same-sex marriage shifted in line with the American public’s, so too has his commitment to protecting the environment.
Easing Into Environmentalism
Ahead of the 2008 election, Barack Obama made climate change a cornerstone of his campaign, a sentiment he continued to echo shortly after his historic victory.
“My presidency will mark a new chapter in America’s leadership on climate change that will strengthen our security and create millions of new jobs in the process,” then President-elect Obama said in remarks to a climate conference in Los Angeles.
Yet despite being blessed with a Democratic Congress — including a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate in 2009 and early 2010 — Obama reneged (at least for the time being) on the hefty promises he made as a candidate, and failed to take advantage of unusually awesome political circumstances to advance any sort of environmental agenda.
Most notably, Obama couldn’t secure the Senate’s support for cap-and-trade legislation after it passed the House in 2009. The measure, known as the Waxman-Markey Bill, would have capped national greenhouse gas emissions and allowed polluters to buy — first from the government, then from one another — what were essentially licenses to emit certain amounts of pollutants. Support for the legislation fizzled and the Senate never even voted on the bill.
But Obama had bigger problems. Tasked with grabbing America by the shirt collar and lifting it out of the Great Recession, the environment paled as a priority, at least as far as the body politic was concerned. Remember, this was Obama’s first term, and a second still needed to be won. The path to pleasing the electorate was growing the economy and creating jobs. Had Obama prioritized the environment at the expense of the economy, he might not have enjoyed a second term, which is when he got really real about climate change and cemented his legacy.
Beyond the economic recovery, Obama’s next priority was retooling what many saw as a broken healthcare system. His exhaustive efforts culminated in the Affordable Care Act, the outstanding achievement of his presidency, though it is already being dismantled by President Trump and a Republican Congress.
Forced to deplete his political capital on the economy and healthcare, not to mention the wars in the Middle East, environmental policy fell by the wayside, a bit too detached from the everyday problems of folks trying to keep their jobs, pay their bills and find affordable health insurance.
Still, there were some significant (if quiet) victories. The federal government invested $80 billion in renewable energy via the economic stimulus package — a sneaky and brilliant way to kickstart the wind and solar industries while simultaneously thwarting economic collapse. Obama directed the Environmental Protection Agency to regulate greenhouse gas emissions under the Clean Air Act. And for the first time in decades, fuel-efficiency standards in vehicles increased — all the way to 35.5 miles per gallon by 2016.
Activists Demand Action
Alas, those moves were not enough. Environmentalists were pissed. Al Gore had 7,000 words to say on the subject in a gargantuan essay published in Rolling Stone. The former Vice President and godfather of the modern-day environmental movement acknowledged the unique circumstances shaping Obama’s presidency and lauded his achievements, but also used excoriating language to call out his inaction on climate policy:
“The real power of any president, as Richard Neustadt wrote, is “the power to persuade.” Yet President Obama has never presented to the American people the magnitude of the climate crisis. He has simply not made the case for action. He has not defended the science against the ongoing, withering and dishonest attacks. Nor has he provided a presidential venue for the scientific community — including our own National Academy — to bring the reality of the science before the public.”
Obama’s fossil-fuel friendly policies, which allowed new gas and oil leases to continue on public lands and offshore, also irked the #KeepItInTheGround movement. The campaign, led by environmental organizations like 350.org, sought an end to new fossil-fuel development. The Obama Administration countered, calling a sudden moratorium on oil and gas leases unrealistic.
“We are going to continue producing oil and gas at a record pace,” Obama said during a speech on energy at a solar plant in Boulder City, Nevada, in 2012. “That’s got to be part of what we do. We need energy to grow.”
The U.S. would eventually go on to become the largest fossil-fuel producer in the world under Obama’s leadership, including a 74 percent increase in domestic oil production between 2009 and 2016. The U.S. also invested $34 billion in dirty fossil-fuel projects around the world under Obama’s tenure, many of which had adverse impacts on local, disadvantaged populations.
Tensions finally boiled over early into Obama’s second term in February 2013 when dozens of climate scientists and activists were arrested after handcuffing themselves to a White House gate to protest the Keystone XL Pipeline and Obama’s general inaction on climate change.
“The threat to our planet’s climate is both grave and urgent,” said civil rights activist and former NAACP President Julian Bond. “Although President Obama has declared his own determination to act, much that is within his power to accomplish remains undone, and the decision to allow the construction of a pipeline to carry millions of barrels of the most-polluting oil on Earth from Canada’s tar sands to the Gulf Coast of the U.S. is in his hands.”
With the economy recovering, the Affordable Care Act on the books and wars winding down first in Iraq, then in Afghanistan, the environment was once again a pressing issue for Americans — who were starting to see more and more alarming data on global warming — which meant it was now a pressing issue for Obama, too.
“He’s in sync with the American public in making this a priority,” former Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.), who chaired the Energy and Natural Resources Committee during Obama’s first term, told Politico. “I think we’re getting more and more to a point where a politician or an officeholder who’s opposed to doing anything for dealing with [climate change] is somewhat on the defensive.”
The Era of Obama’s Climate Policy Begins
Fresh off a good, old-fashioned, election-day whoopin’ of Mitt Romney, Obama surged into his second term armed with a national mandate. During his second inaugural address, he vowed to make climate policy the central focus of his presidency, just as he had prior to taking office in 2009.
“We will respond to the threat of climate change, knowing that failure to do so would betray our children and future generations,” Obama said during his speech on the steps of the Capitol. “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.”
This time, he was serious.
Hamstrung by a Republican Congress determined to cast the specter of failure on his presidency at all costs, Obama realized that he could utilize the powers of the executive branch and go rogue, so to speak, in his quest to protect the environment and follow through on his original campaign promises.
The first act, in June 2013, would be the release of his Climate Action Plan, which sought to curb greenhouse gas emissions, deploy renewable energy projects, invest in research and science and lead international negotiations on climate change. This was President Obama’s emphatic declaration — his response to the protesters arrested just a few months earlier — that his second term would be about climate change and the environment. In late 2013, Obama recruited Bill Clinton’s former chief of staff, John Podesta, to execute the administration’s vision on climate policy.
From that point forward, the pace of progress was furious. In the remainder of 2013, Obama created state and local task forces dedicated to climate preparedness and risk, and signed a presidential memo ordering the federal government to purchase 20 percent of its electrical energy from renewable sources.
The next year saw even fiercer action. In 2014, under Obama, the U.S. pledged $55 million for zero-emissions buses; banned the commercial trade of ivory in the U.S.; dedicated $1 billion to a climate fund; cut $4 billion in fossil-fuel subsidies; increased funding for low-emission vehicles; increased efficiency codes for buildings; purchased 37 million gallons of biofuels for the Navy; made a deal with China to cut emissions by 28% by 2025; saved Bristol Bay; and directed another $4.5 billion (with Japan’s help) into the Green Climate Fund’s coffers.
But Obama was just getting started.
The following year proved to be the global tipping point on climate policy, with Obama’s aggressive policies leading the charge. In 2015, the U.S. created a plan to reduce methane emissions in the fossil-fuel industry by 40 percent by 2025; partnered with India to invest in various green technologies; pledged $7.4 billion to clean-energy technology; declared, via executive order, that federal agencies reduce greenhouse gas emissions while shifting to renewable energy; designated $72 million to rural energy projects; entered a bilateral climate deal with Brazil to increase renewable energy production; convinced major, multinational corporations to spend $140 billion in low-carbon investment; released rules under the Clean Power Plan to lower carbon emissions from power plants; invested $1 billion in green technologies like solar panels; rejected the Keystone XL Pipeline; directed $160 million to a new Smart Cities Initiative; and ended the year with a bang by signing, along with 174 other nations, the historic Paris Agreement.
It’s safe to say 2015 was a good year, but there was plenty of work left to be done.
Going Out Green
With the nation’s attention on a vicious presidential campaign pitting Hillary Clinton against climate denier Donald Trump, Obama blocked out the noise, put his head down and continued to work on behalf of the environment.
In 2016, Obama recruited Canada and Mexico to join the climate-change fight; unlocked $4.5 billion for electric vehicle charging facilities; announced new fuel-efficiency standards for heavy-duty vehicles; continued his commitment to protect more public land and water than any other president — 550 million acres in total; promoted the business benefits of low-carbon technologies; placed a moratorium on new federal coal leasing; oversaw the investment of $300 million the by the Department of Agriculture to assist small businesses in purchasing renewables; and reached an agreement with nearly 200 nations to slash fluorocarbons by more than 80 percent.
Then Donald Trump happened. The brash businessman won the election and began surrounding himself with climate deniers and cronies of the fossil-fuel industry, threatening to unravel Obama’s environmental legacy, which is especially precarious due to its reliance on executive action rather than legislation.
But even as a lame duck, Obama continued his eco-centric ways.
Following Trump’s unexpected victory, Obama spent the last couple months of his presidency cementing a legacy of leadership on environmental issues and climate change.
In December, he became the first president to invoke a rare section of the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act, using it to permanently ban offshore drilling for oil and gas across large sections of the Atlantic and Arctic oceans. The move — which Trump will likely be unable to reverse — was seen as a direct affront to the incoming administration, and a sage interpretation of law that will go a long way toward cementing an environmental legacy erected in remarkably short order.
Obama continued his last-minute maneuvers by designating new national monuments; introducing new rules for oil and gas drilling; blocking the Dakota Access Pipeline; implementing a new regulation to prevent coal mines from polluting streams; listing the rusty-patched bumblebee as endangered; and spending another $500 million to fight climate change via the Green Climate Fund.
— Department of State (@StateDept) January 17, 2017
Take that, Donald.
The question is no longer whether or not Barack Obama is a friend of the environment. Despite his chequered record on fossil-fuels, no other president can match his leadership on environmental policy, renewable energy and climate change on both the national and global levels, especially in the face of persistent political opposition by puerile Republicans. He has lived up to his original campaign promises and beyond — he just waited for the security of a second term to do it.
What many are wondering now is how much of that brilliant legacy will remain with Trump occupying the White House through at least 2020. But that’s a topic for another time.
For now, all we can do is fight for what’s left, challenge every pernicious action by the new administration and build upon the leadership and progress laid down over the last eight years.
Thank you, President Obama, for protecting more land and water than any other president; for cementing the future of renewable energy; for protecting communities against the harsh effects of a changing climate; for leading the global effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions; for relentlessly investing in green technologies; and for making the planet a top priority. After a slow start, you will go down as one of the greatest environmental presidents in history, and certainly the best in recent memory.
As much work as there is to be done — and there is a lot — it’s terrifying to think how far behind we’d be without Barack Obama.