02/21/2009 05:12 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Obama: The Environmental President?

Bill Chameides, recently appointed to the National Academy of Sciences' America"s Climate Choices, blogs regularly at

It's official: Barack Obama is the new U.S. president. Polls tell us Americans are filled with the hope of new beginnings, and the environmental community is especially excited about a new path. Will Obama be able to advance an environmental agenda? If so, he will have distinguished himself from Democratic administrations that promised a lot but delivered little on the environment.

President Barack Obama

Let's face it, the Democratic Party may be associated with environmentalism, but as presidents, Democrats have not been very effective. In fact, if truth be told, the environmental legacies of some Republican presidents are a lot more impressive than those of the Democrats -- a suggestion perhaps vaguely alluded to during yesterday's Inaugural Luncheon, wherein Congress formally welcomes the new president.

There, Sen. Diane Feinstein (D-CA) presented the head table with Thomas Hill's painting of Yosemite to serve as a theme for the inaugural ceremony. In 1864 President Lincoln signed a bill to protect the Yosemite Valley, the first piece of legislation to set aside land for conservation. Lincoln, of course, was a Republican.

Theodore Roosevelt's Tour de Force Environmental Agenda

Teddy Roosevelt, arguably the father of the modern conservation movement, took Lincoln's idea and ran with it. During his presidency, what eventually came to be known as the Wildlife Refuge System, administered by the U.S. National Fish & Wildlife Service, was established. Through it, some 150 million acres of land and waters have now been set aside for public use and protection, including the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR), a controversially potential site for oil exploration and extraction, and parts of the marine monuments established by our most recent Republican president "W."

Building on Roosevelt's legacy, a Democratic president, Woodrow Wilson, signed the law that set up the National Park Service.

Richard Nixon Oversaw Passage of Some Top Environmental Laws

President Nixon, for all his faults, made great strides where the environment is concerned. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency was established on his watch. He also oversaw the passage of a slew of laws protecting the environment, some of which are the most important environmental laws on the books. These include the following, with the two most noteworthy at the top:

The list goes on. Not a bad legacy for a disgraced president.

The First President Bush Signed the Clean Air Act Amendments Into Law

President George H. W. Bush also did well by the environment. Probably most significant was the passage of the Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990, which:

  • established a cap-and-trade system for lowering sulfur oxide and nitrogen oxide emissions from power plants to address acid rain,
  • tightened emissions from automobiles,
  • established procedures for regulating hazardous air pollutants,
  • required states to take more rational approaches to meeting air quality standards, and
  • regulated the use and emissions of ozone-destroying chemicals.

This is what the first George Bush had to say about America's role in solving the world's environmental problems:

"We know now that protecting the environment is a global issue. The nations of the world must make common cause in defense of our environment. And I promise you this: This nation, the United States of America, will take the lead internationally." (Helena, Montana, 1989)

Democratic Presidents' Environmental Record Leaves Room for Improvement

By contrast the environmental records of the two recent Democratic administrations are pretty paltry, without any major new legislation. Jimmy Carter's administration did attempt to move the nation toward a more rational energy policy, but the environmental impacts of those policies are questionable -- for example the initiative to produce synfuels from sources like coal and oil shale. And in any event the Carter initiatives died soon after he left office.

The administration of Bill Clinton, for all the hoopla about the environment and Al Gore serving as vice president, accomplished very little where the environment is concerned. Air quality standards were tightened (see here and here), and rules were promulgated to protect forests, wilderness, and wildlife. But again, no significant new legislation and in particular, and despite Gore's presence in Japan during the negotiations for the Kyoto Protocol, nothing on global warming.

Some Republicans Have Been Environmental Disasters

In fairness, it should be noted that while some Republican presidents have outshone the Democrats, others have been disasters. Ronald Reagan comes to mind (although he did sign the Montreal Protocol), and of course there is the recently departed-for-Texas, George W. Bush. So maybe if you combine the good and bad Republicans legacies, you get an average that's about equivalent to the hohum records of the Democrats.

Against this backdrop, Obama takes center stage. The environmental issues are huge and they must be addressed concurrently with economic and security crises. He has surrounded himself with the very best scientific minds and environmental policy wonks (see here and here), and so does not lack for advice. Obama took the oath of office on President Lincoln's bible, a specific request by the new president from Illinois who feels a kinship with his Illinois predecessor. So, will he do an environmental first, as Lincoln did? Will he deliver like no other Democratic president has on the environment? We'll soon find out.