“Here in the United States we turn our rivers and streams into sewers and dumping-grounds, we pollute the air, we destroy forests and exterminate fishes, birds and mammals,” Theodore Roosevelt presciently wrote in a popular magazine in 1913, as he watched the western frontier vanish four years after he’d left the White House. “But at last it looks as if our people were awakening.”
Roosevelt, the hunter from New York whose name became synonymous with conservation, initiated our country’s long-overdue reconciliation with the environment. Because of him, we can still admire the ancient sequoias and redwoods and visit the Grand Canyon. Nearly every modern president who signs major environmental legislation follows his trailblazing footsteps, but few outshine him.
As Barack Obama’s presidency draws to a close, NationSwell surveyed dozens of experts for their evaluation of how his environmental record measures up to those of former presidents. Of course, comparing presidents against each other over the last century is “tricky,” says Paul Sutter, who teaches modern U.S. history at the University of Colorado in Boulder. “For the first two thirds of the 20th century, conservation and then environmentalism were quite bipartisan, with Republicans often showing substantial leadership on environmental issues,” he notes. “The two Roosevelts, perhaps our most important environmental presidents during the first half of the century, embody that lesson (one a Republican, the other a Democrat).” Today, with the country split across a partisan divide, even environmental preservation and industrial regulation draw controversy.
Confronted with an unbudging Congress and a citizenry that is “remarkably hostile to science,” in Sutter’s words, Obama staked his legacy on strong Environmental Protection Agency regulations and international treaties. How do his accomplishments stack up to contemporary presidents, who each had their own circumstances to navigate? Since Rachel Carson first warned of “a strange blight … silencing the voices of spring in countless towns” back in 1962, who has done the most to purify America’s land and waters? From best to worst, here’s how historians rank our country’s recent leaders.
1. Jimmy Carter
Because of his handling of the Iran hostage crisis, Carter has the bad rap of being a weak commander-in-chief. On environmental protection, however, Carter is our greatest modern president. A dedicated idealist, Carter pushed the Democratic-controlled Congress to support a seven-point plan in early 1977 until his last days in office in 1981. Raised on a farm, Carter traces some of his concern for stewardship back to his experiences with Georgia soil and Southern Baptist soul: “The earth is the Lord’s, and the fullness thereof,” he learned at Bible study. Stewardship of the earth, not exploitation, was our role, he believed. That’s why Carter installed solar panels atop the White House, pledged to lower the thermostat and wear sweaters instead and turned off the Christmas tree lights on the lawn.
“Americans long thought that nature could take care of itself — or that if it did not, the consequences were someone else’s problem. As we know now, that assumption was wrong; none of us is a stranger to environmental problems. Industrial workers, for example, are exposed to disproportionate risks from toxic substances in their surroundings. The urban poor, many of whom have never had the chance to canoe a river or hike a mountain trail, must nevertheless endure each day the hazardous effects of lead and other pollutants in the air,” Carter explained in a May 1977 address. “Intelligent stewardship of the environment on behalf of all Americans is a prime responsibility of government. Congress has in the past carried out its share of this duty well. … Environmental protection is no longer just a legislative job, but one that requires — and will now receive — firm and unsparing support from the Executive Branch.”
The first Democratic president since the creation of the EPA, Carter focused on strengthening the agency that would implement his predecessors’ environmental legislation. Even as the economy faltered, the EPA’s coffers enlarged to confront disasters like Love Canal (1978) and Three Mile Island (1979). In 1977, Carter consolidated agencies to form the U.S. Department of Energy. (Three and a half decades later, Obama’s green tech stimulus dollars would revive the agency.) In the last days of his presidency, during a lame duck session, Carter finally pushed through two major bills: one protected 104 million acres of land in the Alaskan wilderness; the other created the Superfund program, which has cleaned up close to 400 toxic sites.
Despite Carter’s strong convictions, conservative Republicans later reversed much of his agenda. In their minds, his “doomsday” predictions about environmental catastrophe were hindering economic growth. In one of his first orders as president, Reagan tore down the solar panels from the roof and shipped them to a college in Maine.
2. Barack Obama
Experts agree that our current president faced unprecedented challenges in advancing his environmental agenda. “President Obama has had the first ‘climate changed presidency’ and by that I mean that climate impacts are being felt, seen, and survived, as he has been president and that has changed the presidency, permanently,” explains Carol M. Browner, an EPA administrator under Clinton who advised Obama on energy and climate change policy from 2009 to 2011. No president had yet been presented with the incontrovertible evidence of global warming, and no leader had dealt with a Congress that so boldly obstructed conservation efforts. “As a result, I think his achievements to date have been important but relatively modest, in part because [Obama] has found it difficult to do much more and in part because he has been worried about or been scared of the political implications of doing much more,” Sutter argues. “I think Carter was a stronger leader [than Obama], though he suffered for it,” Sutter argues, and that suffering “has likely never been far from Obama’s mind.”
Still, Obama built on the legacy of his predecessors, “bringing a personal interest and knowledgeable appointments,” says D. James Baker, the head of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) under Clinton from 1993 to 2001. When legislative accomplishments escaped him, he invested his energy in stricter regulations that will curb emissions from automobiles and power plants.
What will Obama’s legacy be? As expected, the answers are mixed. “Aside from Theodore Roosevelt (who is in a category of his own), I think that Obama will be regarded as the most pro-environmental president to date,” says Michael Gerrard, who teaches environmental law and energy regulation at Columbia Law School. “Obama is the most radical president in terms of environmental policy in the history of the U.S.,” says Gene Koprowski, a spokesperson for the Heartland Institute, a think tank. “It is as if the spirit of Rachel Carson – author of “Silent Spring” – is occupying the Oval Office.”
Perhaps most realistically, Sutter believes that it’s still to be determined. “We have seen the President becoming much more aggressive as a leader on climate change…I am guessing that he will decide that, now that Obamacare seems safe, he will stake much of his remaining legacy-making on positioning the United States to both meaningfully respond to climate change and to become a global leader on the issue. He has perhaps awoke to the realization that, a quarter century from now, we likely will all be measured by our remarkable incapacity to deal with a huge global threat,” Sutter concludes.
3. Richard Nixon
It seems counterintuitive, but the disgraced commander-in-chief deserves a spot among the strongest environmental champions “because his administration ushered in the fundamental environmental laws of the nation,” says Luke Popovich, spokesman for the National Mining Association. A few months before the first Earth Day celebration in 1970, Nixon signed the National Environmental Policy Act, which mandates that federal agencies file environmental impact statements.
As the modern environmental movement rolled ahead, the Clean Air Act in late 1970 and the Clean Water Act in 1972 quickly came into effect. (Nixon, it should be noted, initially proposed a clean water bill to Congress but vetoed the eventual, more comprehensive legislation because of budget reasons.) With executive orders, Nixon established both the EPA and NOAA. “The fight against pollution,” Nixon said in a 1970 speech to Congress, “is not a search for villains. For the most part, the damage done to our environment has not been the work of evil men, nor has it been the inevitable by-product either of advancing technology or of growing population. It results not so much from choices made, as from choices neglected; not from malign intention, but from failure to take into account the full consequences of our actions.”
With a strong record like that, why isn’t Nixon higher on the list? “Though most of the major environmental laws were signed by Nixon and Ford, they weren’t the leaders,” says Steven Cohen, executive director of the Earth Institute at New York City’s Columbia University. “They went along with a Congressional wave.” Spurred by images of the burning Cuyahoga River and Carson’s ominous words, environmentalism had support from Democrats and Republicans alike, “albeit mostly from the sorts of moderate Republicans that have themselves become an endangered species,” Sutter notes. Still, that’s why Popovich believes Nixon should top the list. “Unlike Obama, Nixon accomplished this in bipartisan fashion, reaching across the aisle to secure strong, lasting legislation,” he says.
4. Bill Clinton
“President Bill Clinton preserved land and ocean areas, set stronger standards for air and water quality and brought on Al Gore as Vice President, giving environmental and climate change issues a strong bully pulpit,” argues Baker. The 42nd President, who’d later be impeached, “faced a hostile congress” like Obama did, Baker says, and he “consistently beat them back with vetoes.” Without Clinton’s strong stances, the Republican congress led by Rep. Newt Gingrich and Sen. Bob Dole threatened to open the 1.5 million-acre Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska for oil drilling, place a radioactive waste dump in California’s Mojave Desert, sell protected national forests to western ski resorts, eliminate tax incentives for renewable energy and undermine the Endangered Species Act — all within just one 1995 bill.
Though his legislative record is noteworthy, Clinton missed a chance to respond to early alerts about global warming. “Clinton said the right things and supported the EPA but he never assigned the environment a top priority, and he did not push through action on climate change,” says Gerrard.
5. George H.W. Bush
This Republican leader’s strong environmental record, which set the groundwork for many of Obama’s accomplishments, may seem anachronistic in today’s divisive era. Bush 41 found common ground between corporate and environmental interests. With more than half of America’s floodplains, estuaries, peat bogs and fens drained and built over as residential communities or farmland, he declared a new policy on wetlands in 1989: “No net loss.” Bush’s policy, an update to Carter’s 1977 executive order on wetlands, didn’t prevent industries from impacting the important wildlife habitat; instead, for every acre infringed on by development, an acre of wetlands elsewhere had to be restored.
The following year, Bush, an avid outdoorsman, commenced the first market-based cap-and-trade program — not for carbon, as Obama’s administration focused on, but sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide that were causing acid rain to fall from the skies. With “emissions trading,” as it was known then, the government didn’t force one solution on power plants; instead, it created an economic incentive to scrub dirty byproducts from the system. As of 2013, the program was still improving air quality: sulfur dioxide emissions were 69 percent below 2005 levels. Rounding out his green accomplishments, Bush “signed the Clean Air Act Amendments” — the statutory authority that led to Obama’s Clean Power Plan — “the Oil Pollution Act (the most recent federal environmental statutes) and also the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change,” which Obama may update in Paris this December, Gerrard notes.
6. Gerald Ford
Building on Nixon’s legacy after the Watergate scandal forced Tricky Dick out of office, Ford approved some crucial environmental legislation — particularly the nation’s first fuel efficiency standards, which doubled the requirement for passenger vehicles to 27.5 miles per gallon, after the oil crisis in the early 1970s. He also advocated for allowing drivers to turn right on red lights, not for convenience, but to reduce the time cars idled at intersections, puffing out exhaust.
While Ford also boosted funding for water treatment facilities through the Safe Drinking Water Act, the eco-friendly news pretty much ends there. Instead, Ford is more likely be remembered for how he “consistently reduced pollution enforcement and vetoed coal-mining restrictions,” Baker says. In 1974, Congress tried to restrict strip mining — the process by which companies chop off mountaintops to access coal underneath — but Ford pocket vetoed the bill. Second only to the Nixon pardon, it’s remembered as his most controversial executive action.
7. Ronald Reagan
In the lone debate with Carter, Reagan, then California’s governor, took aim at “literally thousands of unnecessary regulations” promulgated by the EPA. Immediately after his landslide victory in 1980, the Gipper slashed through Carter’s work. “Reagan moved in the opposite direction, but Congress stopped him going as far as he wanted,” says Gerrard. Reagan’s first appointee at the EPA, Anne Gorsuch, promised “to get out better environmental results with fewer people and less money.” But the pared-down agency, which lost a quarter of its workforce, became notorious for letting polluters off the hook. During Reagan’s first year in office, enforcement cases sent from regional offices to headquarters declined by 79 percent. One crisis after another, including the firing of the Superfund chief, led to a mass exodus from the agency in 1983. Gorsuch resigned. Reagan seemed to back off, but his budget team still crippled the agency by withholding vital funds.
Three years later, in November 1986, Reagan declined to sign the renewal of the Clean Water Act, citing its costly price tag; in a new session, the following February, the House overrode a second veto by a vote of 401 to 26. The Great Communicator, in an early act of denial, also dismissed acid rain proposals that wouldn’t get resolved until Bush 41.
8. George W. Bush
At the bottom of the list is George W. Bush, a Texas oilman who beat back environmental regulations, showing little interest in protecting the planet during his two terms. “George W. Bush seemed to delegate this policy area to Dick Cheney, who was a great friend of the fossil fuel industry,” says Gerrard. Like Reagan’s first administrator, Bush 43’s appointees at the EPA deliberately avoided statutory deadlines for implementation of new environmental safeguards. In 2007, “the Supreme Court decided that greenhouse gasses were an air pollutant that the federal government was required to regulate under the Clean Air Act,” says Cohen. “Bush moved slowly to comply with that ruling,” creating a backlog that kicked the can down the road. (Perhaps luckily, under Obama, the agency drafted the Clean Power Plan in response, “using his authority to require states to reduce their carbon footprints,” Cohen adds.)
He also scuttled global efforts to deal with global warming. The Kyoto Protocol would have “wrecked” the American economy, Bush maintained, in refusing to participate in the international agreement to cut greenhouse gases. For halting research on climate change, lifting drilling moratoriums for his industry pals and weakening regulations, Bush gets the worst spot.