Ask people for their opinion, and they’ll usually give you an honest response. Which is exactly what we wanted when we asked government officials, legislators, environmental experts, scientists and historians what President Barack Obama’s environmental legacy would be. Read on for their judgments.
“I think and hope President Obama will establish a legacy as one of the most consequential Presidents dealing with the environment, particularly with regard to climate change, which is the greatest threat we face today.”
— Former Rep. Harry Waxman, a 20-term California Democrat who chaired the House Energy and Commerce Committee until 2011 and authored the amendments that strengthened the Clean Air Act in 1990
“President Obama has dogmatically used energy as a political tool rather than a building block of renewed economic vibrancy…The innovation of independent producers and the scale of larger companies has combined to make the United States a world economic leader in clean energy — one of our few areas of industrial domination. Yet the President has chosen to brand oil and gas as evil forces and essentially shut down federal lands as source of production.”
— Former Utah Gov. Mike Leavitt, a Republican who implemented higher standards for ozone and other air pollutants and spearheaded a federal cleanup of the Great Lakes while serving as EPA administrator from 2003 to 2005.
“While President Obama has taken significant steps to address climate change — establishing the first-ever carbon emissions limits for power plants and new fuel economy standards for cars — his administration continues to lease massive amounts of publicly-owned fossil fuels…It’s clear that President Obama is serious about cementing his climate legacy, but until he takes steps to ensure the vast majority of fossil fuels remain in the ground, his legacy is as vulnerable as an Arctic ice sheet.”
— Annie Leonard, executive director of Greenpeace USA
“Barack Obama is destined to go down as the greatest climate change-fighting president in history. By the time he leaves office some 15 months from now, he will have instituted game-changing programs to slash carbon pollution from our vehicles and trucks, and from our power plants – together accounting for two-thirds of all U.S. greenhouse gases, the primary driver of dangerous climate change.”
— Ed Chen, national communications director for the National Resources Defense Council
“Even as Obama has talked an increasingly tough game on climate change and the need for dramatic reductions [in emissions], he has also pursued policies that have exacerbated the environmental impacts of domestic energy development — and have increasingly exported our dirty energy sources even as we embrace clean renewables. His environmental achievements, then, have been hamstrung by politics — both the unyielding political opposition as well as his own sense of what’s politic in a nation craving economic growth and energy independence.”
— Paul Sutter, professor of modern U.S. history at the University of Colorado in Boulder
“Looking at individual policy accomplishments doesn’t do justice to President Obama’s legacy on climate change…The component parts of his actions — from making cars and power plants cleaner to preserving major swaths of land and sea for future generations to leading on global ocean policy to beginning to take on industrial methane pollution — tell a story about how he and his administration addressed the problem. But the story is larger than that. I’d say the president’s legacy on climate change lies in his success in making climate change a central policy obligation, getting millions of Americans to care about it, bringing along industry and other stakeholders, and tackling the problem in the face of withering opposition from Congress. So I wouldn’t say that setting fuel efficiency standards is a legacy, I’d say that achieving the cooperation and buy-in of all the stakeholders is the legacy accomplishment. This president, more than others, has had to build those coalitions to overcome the legislative obstruction of climate action and he’s changed how climate policy is developed and implemented.”
— Carol M. Browner, former EPA adminstrator during the Clinton administration and director of the Office of Energy and Climate Change Policy from 2009 to 2011
“As soon as Obama took office, [the] EPA began moving vigorously to regulate greenhouse gas emissions…Obama strongly advocated environmental protection and took several highly publicized trips to advance concern about environmental issues and to promote renewable energy. After his first two years, he was confronted with the most anti-environmental Congress in history, so new legislation was challenging, to say the least. However, he pushed against the limits of his authority under existing laws, especially on climate change.”
— Michael B. Gerrard, professor at Columbia Law School in New York City who teaches courses on environmental regulation and climate change policy
“Obama has ignored not only bipartisan solutions but Congress itself after it rejected his approach on climate change even when Democrats controlled that body. He was the president who deepened the partisan divide between Republicans and Democrats over these crucial intersecting issues. His partisanship has been destructive of any consensus on major enviro-energy issues…Meanwhile, the huge energy event that happened during his watch – the shale oil and gas revolution – flourished not thanks to his administration, but in spite of it.”
— Luke Popovich, spokesman for the National Mining Association
“Mr. Obama is the most radical president in terms of environmental policy in the history of the U.S. It is as if the spirit of Rachel Carson – author of “Silent Spring” – is occupying the Oval Office. Every imagined environmental threat takes on the utmost urgency in this president’s mind, no matter how weak the scientific evidence…He leaves behind a legacy of narcissism, grandiosity and political correctness that will be hard for anyone to match, though Mrs. Clinton, should she survive the FBI probe of her national security lapses, might be able to come close.”
— Gene Koprowski, director of marketing for the Heartland Institute, a conservative public policy think tank
“The stimulus package gave President Obama a chance to invest in renewables early in his first term, allowing him to make progress on the issues unlike most other recent presidents, who have been forced for political reasons to leave critical environmental issues to their second terms. In 2009 and 2010, there was an apparent window of opportunity to promote a carbon cap and trade bill in Congress, but the administration was eager for a quick victory and opted for health care. Whether with Obama’s support this could have happened is a good question, but there is no question that the decision to back off was demoralizing to the environment and climate change community.”
— D. James Baker, former administrator of the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and current director of the Global Carbon Measurement Program at the William J. Clinton Foundation
“President Obama will be remembered for strong leadership on climate change. He implemented two key policies in the United States that will substantially cut the emissions of heat trapping gases — fuel economy standards for vehicles, and limits on carbon dioxide emissions from power plants. He also brokered a deal with China to cut emissions from that country, which is critical to the success of a worldwide agreement expected to emerge in Paris this year. The missing piece of his legacy is national climate change legislation, which he and congress failed to pass.”
— Kenneth Kimmell, president of the Union of Concerned Scientists, a nonprofit
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