“This was the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal.” That’s what Barack Obama promised in 2008 upon winning the Democratic nomination. Seven years later, he’s returning to his pledge as he ponders his legacy and his final 500 days in office.
Was this really the moment when climate change reversed course? NationSwell asked dozens of scientists, historians, jurists, former EPA administrators, legislators and presidential candidates a simple question: How will future generations judge Barack Obama’s record on energy and the environment? Not surprisingly, the responses vary. Some were glowing (“Barack Obama is destined to go down as the greatest climate change-fighting president in history,” says Ed Chen, national communications director for the Natural Resources Defense Council), while others were hesitant to issue a verdict: “It’s a very unfinished climate legacy, full of steps forwards, sideways, and back,” says Bill McKibben, former staff writer at The New Yorker and founder of 350.org, a grassroots climate change movement.
Indeed, the 44th president faltered on environmental legislation in his first term, preferring to expend his political capital on the Affordable Care Act. But Obama’s use of regulatory authority and his agreement with China likely ensure his place in the pantheon of modern environmental champions.
It’s taken nearly two full terms to bring his labors to fruition. Shortly after defeating Sen. John McCain in the race for the Oval Office, Obama set two bills in motion on which he would stake his legacy: the health care law in the upper chamber, and in the lower, a comprehensive environmental bill that included a market-based carbon cap-and-trade system and renewable energy standards, co-authored by Rep. Henry Waxman, a California Democrat whose amendments strengthened the Clean Air Act in 1990.
In June 2009, Waxman’s bill narrowly passed the House by a vote of 219-212. “There was an apparent window of opportunity” in that moment, says D. James Baker, a scientist who headed the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) under Bill Clinton, but by December, “the administration was eager for a quick victory and opted for health care.” The climate change bill became Obama’s “stepchild,” a senior official told The New Yorker.
Offering concessions to earn goodwill from the Republican caucus, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) agreed to delay implementation of carbon regulations for another year. Soon after, the president announced huge sections of U.S. waters along the East Coast and Gulf of Mexico open for drilling and withdrew support for the versions of Waxman’s cap-and-trade bill being negotiated in the Democratic-led Senate.
“Whether with Obama’s support [a nationwide cap-and-trade law] could have happened is a good question,” says Baker, “but there is no question that the decision to back off was demoralizing to the environment and climate change community.” Days later, as oil bubbled up from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, Democrats hung their heads in defeat. “The missing piece of his legacy is national climate change legislation, which he and Congress failed to pass,” says Kenneth Kimmel, president of the Union of Concerned Scientists.
That’s not to say Obama failed completely during his first term. The 2009 stimulus bill designated $90 billion for a bevy of green initiatives: retrofitting homes for energy efficiency, fueling development in wind and solar power, modernizing the grid, training employees for green jobs, building high-speed rail, researching carbon capture for coal-burning plants and manufacturing cleaner cars.
“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,” says Baker. If anything, the president’s preference for working outside the legislature set the standard for his later environmental accomplishments. After the bruising battle over healthcare and the Republican sweep of the 2010 midterm elections, Obama took the path of least resistance.
Waxman retired last year after 20 terms, but you can still sense his frustration with the gridlock that killed his legislation. In an email, he tells NationSwell that Congress “refuses to learn from the overwhelming scientific consensus on the dangers we are facing.” He applauded President Obama for circumventing the increasingly partisan legislature by using “the power to act domestically and internationally based on existing laws on the books, even without Congress passing new laws.” Bolstered by a Supreme Court ruling in 2007 that George W. Bush’s administration had shirked their duties, Waxman’s Clean Air Act amendments provided all the authority Obama needed.
In the past month, much of the focus has been on the Clean Power Plan, which will reduce carbon dioxide emissions from power plants 32 percent by 2030. But that’s only the latest in a long series of administrative actions. During Obama’s first term, the EPA and the Department of Transportation set new fuel efficiency standards: All cars built after 2025 must get at least 54.5 miles per gallon. This summer, those same agencies proposed raising standards for medium-duty and heavy-duty vehicles as well. Despite litigation that’s made its way all the way to the Supreme Court, the EPA slashed the acceptable levels of ozone that clouds city skylines, mercury released by coal-fired plants and methane billowing from oil fields, landfills and farms.  When it comes to conservation, Obama’s designated more land and water as national monuments under the Antiquities Act — 260 million acres total — than any other president.
In creating “the first-ever framework for the United States to achieve long-term emissions reductions,” says Richard Revesz, former dean of New York University School of Law, these achievements will outlast Obama’s two terms — regardless of whom the next president is. “Even if the Democrats lose the White House in 2017, the new greenhouse gas regulations will still need to be implemented,” says Steven Cohen, executive director of Columbia’s Earth Institute. Those guidelines, along with states’ actions, “will probably end the use of coal as a source of energy in the U.S.”
Despite the likely positive outcomes, several Republicans interviewed chastised the president for his reliance on regulations, instead of legislation. “It will be seen as a failure that he wasn’t able to get anything through that is enforceable,” says Christine Todd Whitman, the former New Jersey governor who was George W. Bush’s first appointee as EPA administrator. She argues that using the “heavy-handed tool” of the EPA “will make things more difficult for the agency going forward.”
Others had even harsher words. “President Obama has dogmatically used energy as a political tool rather than a building block of renewed economic vibrancy,” says Mike Leavitt, former governor of Utah and Whitman’s successor as EPA administrator. Luke Popovich, spokesman for the National Mining Association, agrees. “He was the president who deepened the partisan divide between Republicans and Democrats over these crucial intersecting issues” of energy and the environment.
Perhaps because the president has been “hamstrung by politics,” as one historian phrased it, he’s not staking his legacy on any one bill or rule. Instead, as his recent photo-ops in Alaska demonstrates, Obama seems to be focusing on perceptions. His prominence on the global stage — including his role in negotiating the limited Copenhagen Accord in 2010 and the recent deal with China to curb their emissions by 2030 — “helped move the issue of global environmental sustainability to the center of the American and international political agenda,” says Cohen.
As the commander-in-chief prepares to convene with leaders from 196 countries to sign a treaty at the United Nations Climate Change Conference this December, his legacy on climate change “lies in his success in making climate change a central policy obligation,” says Carol M. Browner, Obama’s advisor who directed the White House Office of Energy and Climate Change Policy from 2009 to 2011, when Waxman’s cap-and-trade bill foundered. If the president can get millions of Americans, industry and other stakeholders to think about it while also facing opposition from Congress, he’ll be remembered for changing how climate policy is developed and implemented.
As the effects of climate change become more visible, the challenges facing Obama aren’t disappearing like glaciers are. Perhaps surprisingly, some of the president’s loudest critics are on the left. They’re fuming over the Keystone XL pipeline and off-shore oil and gas exploration in the Arctic and Atlantic Oceans.
“With the president’s permission, Shell is now drilling for oil in the Alaskan Arctic, and his administration has authorized the future sale of 10.2 billion tons of coal,” says Annie Leonard, Greenpeace USA’s executive director. “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.”