Obama's Climate Change Legacy Is Impressive, Imperfect And Vulnerable

The president made significant strides while hamstrung by an obstructive and regressive GOP, but he got a late start and was forced to act unilaterally too often.
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President Obama’s environmental legacy was mainly forged over the last three years. During his second term in office, he made combating climate change a priority, laying out his ambitious Climate Change Action Plan on June, 25th 2013. Since then, the administration has put forth a series of regulations to cut carbon emissions and methane emissions from power plants drastically. They directed federal agencies to reduce their greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by 40% by 2025. The U.S. partnered with India to jointly fund clean energy research, and to reduce HFCs and air pollution through programs and community awareness. Obama worked with Germany, France, and Japan to raise billions for the Green Climate Fund. He finally rejected the Keystone XL last year, and, perhaps most significantly, the U.S. was able to bring China on board for the historic Paris Climate agreement.

On December 20th, the president announced a ban on off-shore drilling in large sections of the Arctic and along the Atlantic Seaboard. Much like when he, as the New York Times pointed out, used provisions in the Clean Air Act to pass restrictions on fossil fuel energy systems, this time Obama used a provision in the OCS Lands Act to pass the legislation unilaterally. Obama is hoping this clever finagling will result in a permanent drilling ban in these areas, but the matter is far from settled.

Obama’s first term was centered around passing the Affordable Care Act and lifting the country out of a recession, and his second has been punctuated by unilateral environmental protections issued through executive orders. The problem with relying on the executive order is its live-by-the-pen, die-by-the-pen nature. The next president can rescind every executive order on day one, and President-elect Trump said he will do just that. Of course, Obama had no other avenue to take here. He was operating in a chaotic realm of illogical disbelief. He faced barriers from coal- and oil-funded politicians at every turn pushing a particularly stoic brand of obstructionism. Many members of the GOP see environmental regulations as job killers, and in a temporary sense, they can have that result. But Obama recognized that slowing innovation by pandering to dying, nearly obsolete industries is myopic—it’s not the way a civilization moves forward. It’s pure can-kicking.

“He was operating in a chaotic realm of illogical disbelief. He faced barriers from coal- and oil-funded politicians at every turn pushing a particularly stoic brand of obstructionism.”

Even though many protections will fall under a Trump presidency, Obama deserves credit for working to protect our atmosphere and natural resources, and for rising to become an international leader on climate change. But he surely could’ve gone a few steps further. As The Guardian reported, the US Export-Import Bank, which operates as a part of the administration, granted over $33 billion in loans to companies for fossil fuel projects abroad—a number which far exceeds the totals of our last four presidents. Though he eventually attempted (albeit unsuccessfully) to place limits on methane emissions from hydraulic fracking, many environmentalists wanted the practice banned entirely. Obama supported the controversial natural gas extraction process, calling it a “bridge fuel.” While power generated from wind and solar rose exponentially, oil and natural gas production increased significantly during his presidency as well. It took him until 2015 to deal with the smog issue in the U.S., and the new restrictions were seen as only a slight improvement.

As Obama himself stated, “What makes climate change difficult is that it is not an instantaneous catastrophic event... it’s a slow-moving issue that, on a day-to-day basis, people don’t experience and don’t see.” He’s right; it’s a really hard sell. Preservation is not sexy. Our culture is stitched to immediate gratification. We trade in the now, tangled in the tangible, seemingly content to suck every well dry and let future generations manage the fallout.

And it’s difficult to compare Obama’s legacy to other planet-friendly presidents. Teddy Roosevelt, Jimmy Carter and, this may surprise you, Richard Nixon (Nixon created the EPA and signed the Clean Air Act, Marine Mammal Protection Act, Safe Drinking Water Act, and the Endangered Species Act) are generally seen as the greenest presidents we’ve had. But all three of them were operating in a different realm entirely—before the environment was made into a starkly partisan issue. Obama was dealing with a wave of anti-intellectualism that dismissed science as a liberal apparatus. Therefore his legacy needs to be graded on a curve; he should be in the conversation. Over the last few years, he’s done pretty much everything in his power to set us on an environmentally progressive trajectory.

With oil-funded, climate change denier Scott Pruitt now set to head the EPA (an organization he is currently suing over the Clear Power Plan,) and the President-elect aiming to “lift the restrictions on the production of $50 trillion dollars’ worth of job-producing American energy reserves, including shale, oil, natural gas and clean coal” and to “lift the Obama-Clinton roadblocks and allow vital energy infrastructure projects, like the Keystone Pipeline, to move forward,” Obama’s achievements are in peril.

He should’ve started earlier.

He should’ve been an alarmist from day one.

But he’s done his best to make up for setting the planet on the backseat for his first few years.

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