The president as climate warrior

Flames light up the landscape at a Texas fracking operation. President Barack Obama’s rhetoric about his impact on the Earth struck some as grandiose and fanciful.
Flames light up the landscape at a Texas fracking operation. President Barack Obama’s rhetoric about his impact on the Earth struck some as grandiose and fanciful. Washington Post

On the night in early June 2008 when Barack Obama had finally won enough contests to secure the Democratic nomination for president, he marked the momentous occasion with a prediction.

“I am absolutely certain that generations from now, we will be able to look back and tell our children that this was the moment when we began to provide care for the sick and good jobs to the jobless; this was the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal,” he said at a campaign rally in St. Paul, Minn. on the last night of voting of that primary season.

Obama had made history by winning the nomination, and that night he spoke from the same stage where John McCain, his GOP rival, would accept his party’s nomination that September.

Obama’s rhetoric about his impact on the Earth struck some as grandiose and fanciful. The line was mocked by critics, and by every scientific measure the planet’s precarious situation has gotten worse, not better since he made that claim.

Each year of Obama’s presidency so far has been among the top 10 hottest years on record. In 2015, the United States saw the most wildfires in recorded history. Atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide – the best measure of the global increase in heat-trapping gases – continue to rise. So do sea levels.

As these indicators worsened during the course of his first term, many environmentalists complained that Obama was too focused on the ailing economy and not sufficiently interested in passing legislation that would have imposed nationwide limits on greenhouse gas emissions. In fact, the president and some aides were laying the groundwork for these cuts – but played down their significance.

Several members of the president’s inner circle were worried that pressing too hard on environmental issues in the midst of a deep recession could be politically costly. Although the Democratic-controlled House managed in the summer of 2009 to narrowly pass legislation that would have adopted a cap-and-trade system to help curb greenhouse gas emissions nationally, the bill stalled in the Senate as Democrats focused on passing the Affordable Care Act instead.

But Lisa Jackson, who headed the Environmental Protection Agency, pressed ahead with a series of public health and auto-efficiency rules that – coupled with broader energy market trends – helped cut greenhouse gas emissions significantly.

In 2009, the EPA reached a deal with the U.S. auto industry, which had just been bailed out by the federal government, to impose the first-ever carbon limits on cars and light trucks. The agency implemented a mercury and air toxic standard in 2011, which was 21 years in the making and required tighter pollution controls on many power plants. It also issued a Cross-State Air Pollution Rule, which further cut emissions, along with multiple regional haze rules.

At the very time that these federal rules were making coal-generated electricity more expensive, an explosion in hydraulic fracturing, an efficient technique for extracting natural gas, was making U.S. gas cheaper. And Obama’s controversial stimulus package, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, kick-started clean energy and energy-efficiency projects across the country.

But the president and his aides played down the climate agenda, fearing that it would imperil his reelection. They adopted an “all of the above” approach to U.S. energy production.

They welcomed the expansion of natural gas drilling – much of which was happening on private land, either on the Great Plains or in states such as Pennsylvania – and appeared to be open to approving a massive pipeline to transport heavy crude oil from Canada’s oil sands region to Gulf Coast refineries in Texas.

Many environmentalists were frustrated. “The administration didn’t spend too much political capital on cutting carbon,” said Sierra Club executive director Michael Brune.

Activists chained themselves to the White House fence to protest the Keystone XL pipeline, arguing that it was one of the few ways Obama could act unilaterally to combat the use of fossil fuels.

And act he did, once he was reelected. From the moment Obama won a second term, climate change and the environment became one of his top priorities. Surprising even some of his top aides, he declared in his second inaugural address: “We will respond to the threat of climate change, knowing that the failure to do so would betray our children and future generations.”

Within six months he had unveiled a climate action plan, and he pressed ahead on a range of issues, including mandatory carbon limits on existing power plants and negotiation of a major new global climate agreement in Paris. He also rejected the Keystone XL pipeline, arguing that allowing it to proceed would send the wrong message at a time when the United States was committed to tackling global warming, and he went to Alaska to draw America’s attention to what a melting glacier looks like.

The president came to realize in his second term, Brune said, “that to win on climate you can’t avoid a fight. He recognizes there are adversaries on the climate fight, and he has not missed an opportunity to take them on.”

Obama’s legacy on climate will depend on who follows him in the Oval Office. But already, these policies have helped transform the American landscape.

As of June 2016, 1 million U.S. homes boasted solar installations – a benchmark that took 40 years to reach. There are now more employees working in solar energy than in the coal industry, and two of the fastest-growing careers include wind-turbine technician and solar-panel installer.

At the same time, the coal industry continues to shrink. Coal accounted for nearly half of U.S. electricity generation when Obama took office; now, it amounts to a third.

“Just since 2011, when the president’s power plant regulations began to bite, about 68,000 coal miners have lost their jobs – high-wage jobs that this administration has failed to replace, let alone create,” said Luke Popovich, a spokesman for the National Mining Association.

His allies and critics rarely agree but on this they do: By the time he leaves office, Obama will have pushed through one of the most ambitious environmental agendas in U.S. history.