Unfinished Business: President Obama's Climate Legacy

It's not fair. You could argue that we shouldn't even be having this conversation. It really isn't close.

But with less than two months left in his presidency, there is an understandable interest in assessing President Obama's legacy, including on climate change. During his recent trip to China and the Pacific islands, the President continued to pile up climate-related achievements and was in full legacy mode in an extended segment with the New York Times.


Can we get this, quite important, point out of the way: No US president has done more to advance the fight against climate change. By a long shot. Whether driving domestic policy through the Environmental Protection Agency as Congress dithered, or using his diplomatic powers to make climate change a legitimate top foreign policy issue, President Obama has elevated climate and clean energy as no president has before.

Not the least of these accomplishments is moving quickly after December's Paris climate deal to mobilize countries to bring the agreement into force this year, rather than waiting for its proposed 2020 deadline. In January, the smart guys would've laughed at you and said this was impossible. But this week in New York we nearly reached the twin thresholds of at least 55 countries with 55% of global emissions joining the agreement. It's certainly going to happen before the clock strikes midnight on New Year's Eve.

This is a really impressive climate CV. If only Mother Nature graded on a curve; we would be so winning.

But she doesn't, and we can't, because we aren't yet winning. We are finally waking up, but that's different. Which is why what happens over the final 100 days or so of the Obama presidency may be nearly as important as what happens in the first 100 days of the next president. Here are 4 things that need to be on the White House's short list of remaining priorities:

  1. End Arctic Oil and Gas Drilling, forever: Cognitive dissonance isn't a top-ten attribute of a laudable leader. So it is hard to see how to square the goal in Paris to fully decarbonize the world economy and the US Interior Department's draft proposal to open up vast stretches of the Arctic Ocean to risky oil and gas drilling. Doing so would undermine progress towards the Paris deal and put America's Arctic at risk. There is still time for the President to permanently remove the Beaufort and Chukchi seas from dangerous drilling. He should do it.

  • Close the 747-sized Loophole in the Paris Deal: Today the carbon footprint of global aviation is larger than all but six of Earth's 200+ countries. If left unchecked, this pollution would eat up more than 25% of the remaining carbon budget to the 1.5C goal of the Paris Agreement. But the deal in Paris does nothing to address the emissions from international flights which fall outside of countries domestic targets. The US needs to bring countries together to deliver a strong deal at the UN's International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) meetings starting next week. The cards on the table at ICAO aren't looking great, so the best we can do may be a small step forward. The key is to forge a deal that allows for future progress to ensure airlines do their fair share to meet the Paris goals global decarbonization and limiting warming to 1.5C.
  • Deliver a Global Agreement on Super-Pollutants: Remember the hole in the ozone layer? Solving it was arguably one of the greatest achievements of modern international diplomacy. One problem: the chemicals used in newer refrigerators, air conditioners and other appliances to replace the ozone eating old ones turned out to be super-potent greenhouse gases. Whoops. This month, governments are trying to hammer out a deal to phase out those super GHGs. If successful, it would take a huge bite out future climate emissions. This has been a high priority for the Administration and they need to bring it across the finish line.
  • Chart a Course for the United States to Go Zero-Carbon before Mid-Century: The Paris deal determined that the global economy must be carbon neutral by the second half of the century. It called on countries to develop national plans to show how they will contribute their fair share toward the global Paris goals. Research shows the US 'fair share' will require being carbon neutral before 2050. So before they turn out the lights, the Administration should create a long-term plan that shows how the US will prepare for climate change and contribute to the Paris decarbonization goal by zeroing out US carbon pollution before 2050. By including key steps that future administrations should take to end fossil fuel development and move to renewable energy, such a plan can set a high bar for other countries while leaving room for the next Administration to define the more detailed steps.
  • This is a hefty 100-day agenda. And let's be clear: it won't solve the climate crisis; we've long-since missed that boat and entered the Age of Climate Change where all future presidents (and really all of us) will be judged by their ability to minimize the harm that's headed our way. But seizing this remaining agenda would round out an impressive push, especially over the past 3 years, by the Obama administration to move the climate and energy issue to the forefront of national and international priorities. And that would be a legacy worth having.

    Image Credit: The White House