President Barack Obama will leave the White House in January with a proud environmental legacy. Despite fierce opposition in Congress and some resistance abroad, the president has managed to pass several key climate initiatives at home and brokered several important global deals to curtail greenhouse gas emissions. The Paris Agreement, the most significant climate change accord in history, is perhaps Obama’s crowning achievement.
“No U.S. president has done more to advance the fight against climate change. By a long shot,” wrote Lou Leonard, the head of the World Wildlife Fund’s climate change program, in The Huffington Post last month. “Whether driving domestic policy through the Environmental Protection Agency as Congress dithered, or using his diplomatic powers to make climate change a legitimate top foreign policy issue, President Obama has elevated climate and clean energy as no president has before.”
But as the ongoing legal and Congressional battle over Obama’s Clean Power Plan that aims to curb power plant emissions in the U.S. makes clear, there is no shortage of opponents eager to dismantle the climate gains that the president has achieved in almost eight years of office. The November election could determine a great deal about how America’s climate change story unravels from here.
As Obama himself told The New York Times last month, all of his climate achievements could be “undone at the ballot box.”
“I think it’s fair to say that if Donald Trump is elected, for example, you have a pretty big shift now with how the EPA operates,” he said.
But it’s not just the future of the Environmental Protection Agency that’s at stake. Here are some of Obama’s top environmental accomplishments as president. Will his successor defend and extend these climate gains, or destroy them, along with the environment?
An Energy Sea Change And Slashed Emissions
Under Obama, the United States has undergone an energy transformation. It’s moved away from coal, which environmentalists have called the “single greatest threat to our climate,” while embracing cleaner forms of energy.
When the president first took office, 48 percent of American’s electricity came from coal. Today, it’s about 30 percent, The Associated Press reports.
“There were gigantic changes happening in the energy world, gigantic tectonic changes,” Peter Fox-Penner of the Boston University Institute for Sustainable Energy told the news outlet in September. “It’s a sea change. There is no question.”
With these changes has come another critical shift: over the past decade, U.S. emissions of carbon dioxide have fallen more than 10 percent. This is an insufficient reduction, some activists stress. But it’s a start. In 2015, U.S. CO2 emissions dropped by 145 millions tons, making it the world leader in lowering emissions.
There are many factors to credit for this decline, including the recession and technological advancements in the oil and gas industry. But as New York Magazine’s Jonathan Chait explained in 2013, Obama deserves some of the credit, too. In 2009, the president had pushed through a stimulus package that increased research and spending in renewables including solar and wind. Wind power generation had since doubled in the U.S., Chait said, while solar power had risen six-fold.
The Clean Power Plan
When Obama unveiled the Clean Power Plan in August last year, it was hailed as the strongest action ever taken by a U.S. president to combat climate change. The plan, which gives the EPA the authority to regulate carbon pollution from power plants, aims for greenhouse gas emissions cuts from power plants of 32 percent by 2030.
Obama, who used the authority of an existing 1970 law to bypass Congress, called the Clean Power Plan a “moral obligation” for Americans.
But the law has been met with vehement opposition from dozens of states, corporations and industry groups who’ve called the regulation Obama’s “war on coal.” The Supreme Court has temporarily blocked the legislation. The stay is set to remain in place until after the election.
Paris Climate Accord And Other Global Initiatives
Outside of the United States, Obama has been proactive in pushing other nations to commit to climate action.
In 2013, for instance, Obama and China President Xi Jinping signed an agreement to reduce emissions of hydrofluorocarbons, or HFCs, which are used as refrigerants and are thousands of times more potent than CO2 at trapping heat. This week, world leaders are meeting in Rwanda to discuss a deal to ban the so-called “super greenhouse gas.”
Obama also played a central role in the brokering of the landmark Paris Climate Agreement, which is set to be activated in November. The accord, which commits nations to preventing a more than 2C rise of average global temperatures above pre-industrial levels, “gives us the best possible shot to save the one planet we got,” Obama said last week.
Closer to home, Obama rejected the controversial Keystone XL pipeline last November. The pipeline, which environmental groups had protested for years, would have transported hundreds of thousands of barrels of oil a day from Alberta, Canada to the U.S.
As a “global leader, when it comes to taking serious action to fight climate change,” the president said America “frankly” could not approve the project.
Some observers said Obama’s decision then allowed him to start a dialogue about climate change with Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau, who had just been sworn into office.
By March, Obama and Trudeau had agreed to a climate partnership, which Mexico’s President Enrique Peña Nieto later also signed. The agreement included a joint goal of generating half of North America’s electricity from low-carbon sources by 2025.
There are other wins on Obama’s environmental record. In particular, the protection of more environments than any other president in history, including the establishment of the world’s largest marine reserve. He also established the country’s first National Ocean Policy and the Great Outdoors Initiative. In 2013, Obama became the third U.S. president to install solar panels on the White House.
For all these successes, however, Obama has had his fair share of critics. Some activists say he hasn’t done enough, while opponents argue he’s overstepped his boundaries. The cap-and-trade bill he failed to push through during his first term is a notable failure.
Ultimately, Obama leaves “an ambitious and divisive legacy” to his successor, said The New York Times in September — from the contentious Clean Power Plan to the lofty Paris Agreement.
Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton has made her position on climate change clear. At Sunday night’s debate, the former secretary of state called the issue a “serious problem.” She’s previously vowed to meet, and even exceed, the climate goals that Obama has set ― including generating enough renewable energy “power every home in America,” and both cutting energy waste and American oil consumption by a third within 10 years.
GOP nominee Donald Trump, on the other hand, has a decidedly more dangerous position. He has called climate change “bullshit” and a “hoax” that he insists the Chinese government created to destroy American manufacturing. He has vowed to dismantle the EPA, repeal the Clean Power Plan and “renegotiate” the Paris Climate Accord.
The former reality TV personality has also vowed to resuscitate the Keystone XL Pipeline. “I want it built but I want a piece of the profits,” Trump said in May. “That’s how we’re going to make our country rich again.”
Obama has said time and again that he believes climate action will be the most significant legacy of his presidency.
Climate change “poses a greater threat to future generations” than any other challenge, he’s said. So ensuring America’s role as a torchbearer in this fight has been crucial.
“Today the United States is leading on climate change,” Obama said in November, after rejecting Keystone.
Let’s keep it that way.