Obama’s Climate Legacy

 Heading into the 2008 election, the US executive branch was emerging from a decade in the environmental dark ages. After giving initial attention to global warming in the 1990s by signing on to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, Congress, in 1997, refused to ratify the Kyoto Protocol.  This refusal, followed by George W. Bush’s withdrawal of the United States from the Protocol in 2001, set a concerning precedent of the US government ignoring (or even exacerbating) its contribution to climate change. The climate legacy of the Bush administration was one of tax breaks for oil companies and refusing to cooperate in international climate negotiations; focusing most of its environmental efforts on voluntary programs and allowing emissions to increase by 12% from 2002-2012.

By 2008, public awareness of, and concern about, climate change had risen twenty percentage points in a decade. With 72% of Americans believing that there was solid evidence of global warming in the fall of 2008, environmentalists were determined to make climate action a priority in the election. During the campaign, Obama vowed to reduce US CO2 emissions by 80 percent by 2050 and invest $150 billion in new energy-saving technologies, among other climate-related promises. Rejecting industry comments that it would be too costly to implement and would put added stress on an economy already heading into recession, Obama countered that his plan would reduce oil imports, create jobs in alternative energy, and reduce the warming of the atmosphere. He vowed to make the United States a leader in climate change while strengthening security and creating millions of new jobs in the process.

Six years later, Obama is facing some harsh criticism about living up to his climate promises. In a recent Rolling Stone feature, climate activism leader Bill McKibben cut through Obama’s climate legacy, recognizing some progress, but mostly pointing out where the President has fallen short. McKibben’s criticism focuses on the growth of fossil fuel production in America under Obama and the President’s waffling on the Keystone XL pipeline as his biggest climate failures.  Other environmentalists have also jumped on board to criticize Obama for putting climate change on the back burner and failing to live up to his climate promises, domestically and in the international arena.

Is the President deserving of this criticism? According to an evaluation of Obama’s environmental campaign promises from 2008, he is not doing quite as poorly as some have claimed. A survey of the President’s environmental and energy campaign promises on Politifact.com show that out of 47 environment-related energy promises made during the 2008 campaign, over half (26) have been kept or are in progress towards completion. Another 7 were compromised on, while 14 were stalled or broken.

Obama Climate Promises

Figure 1 Source: Politifact.com: Promises about Energy on the Obameter (filtered for environment/climate protection)

 Where has the President been successful with his climate policies, and where has he fallen short? Throughout his first term, Obama focused the so-called “low-hanging fruit” – energy policies and regulations that caused little disruption for the American people and did not require congressional action (such as making buildings more energy efficient, phasing out iridescent bulbs and upping the mileage requirements on cars). While this was important progress, it was obvious that Obama had little appetite to make significant progress on climate change. Among the “broken” promises are policies that could have fulfilled Obama’s campaign declaration to make America a leader in fighting climate change, including creating a federal cap and trade system, eliminating oil and gas tax loopholes, and requiring 25% renewable energy in the US economy by 2025.

In November 2012, a recently re-elected President Obama claimed climate change as a personal mission of his second term. With healthcare reform stabilizing and congress stalling Obama’s other political efforts such as gun control and immigration reform, climate change is something that we could actually see progress on during this term. Already in 2013, Obama has used his executive power to require the EPA to begin regulating power plant emissions and promote the nation’s resiliency to climate change. Contrasting with this, however, Obama continues to also support the growth of American fossil fuels. Under current policies, the US will pass Saudi Arabia as the world’s biggest oil producer by the time Obama leaves office.

While action to fight climate change has increased by leaps and bounds in Obama’s six years compared to Bush’s eight, we still have quite a long way to go. Obama’s climate record today is mixed at best, yes he has taken the easy steps to respond to climate change but now the hard, and truly impactful ones, remain.  If Obama truly wants to make an impact on climate change in his last two years, he will need to refocus his energies towards renewables, emissions limits and new technologies, as well as begin to demonstrate significant US commitment in the international climate change dialogue.   Our last democratic president’s signature environmental action was protecting more land than any president since Teddy Roosevelt.  It remains to be seen if Obama can make action on climate change his legacy.

Image Credit: Jesse Lee via Wikimedia Commons


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