Forum: Assessing Obama’s Record on the Environment

When Barack Obama won the presidency in 2008, environmentalists were optimistic that their issues would finally become a priority at the White House. So how is Obama doing? Yale Environment 360 asked a group of environmentalists and energy experts for their verdicts on the president’s performance.

More than 2 ½ years have passed since President Barack Obama took office — a sufficient length of time to assess what he has accomplished, or at least started to accomplish. To gauge his record on the environment, Yale Environment 360 asked a variety of environmental leaders, writers, and policy experts to answer the following questions: How would you assess President Obama’s record on energy and the environment? And what do you consider his major accomplishments and failures in these fields?

In their responses, several common themes emerged. Most felt the president’s greatest failures were his tepid support of climate legislation, which ultimately went down to defeat, and his refusal to rally the country to fight global warming. His greatest successes were seen as setting strict vehicle mileage standards and funding energy efficiency and renewable energy projects. And his greatest challenge going forward? A majority of our contributors said it was fending off an all-out assault on environmental policies and regulations from Tea Partyers and other conservatives in Congress.

Bill McKibben

Bill McKibben, author, scholar in residence at Middlebury College, and founder of

President Obama hasn’t yet caused “the rise of the oceans to begin to slow” or “the planet begin to heal,” and since that was his promise, I guess it’s been a less-than-stellar record. But of course everything is complicated in Washington by the existence of a know-nothing Congress. He put some decent money into the stimulus plan for green energy, and then he largely seemed to lose interest, punting on the climate legislation before the Senate. I might lose interest too if I knew I’d have to muster 60 votes to overcome Jim Inhofe, or if I faced the prospect of dealing with the silly men and women currently dominating the House of Representatives.

But that’s what makes it so sad that he’s failed in the places where he had complete control — most notably, he opened a huge chunk of Wyoming to coal mining earlier this year. The decision was the carbon equivalent of opening 300 coal-fired power plants. Why, if we expect Brazil or Indonesia to guard their rainforests, do we get to do this kind of thing?

So we’ll get what may be our final first-term read on his thinking this fall, when he decides (all by himself, with no Congressional involvement) whether or not to sign the permit for the Keystone XL Pipeline from Alberta’s tar sands. Since his most prominent federal climate scientist, James Hansen, has stated loudly that further tar sands development will mean it’s “essentially game over” for the climate, the stakes couldn’t be much clearer. We’ll be doing our best to remind him with large-scale civil disobedience in August.

David Victor

David Victor, professor of political science at the University of California, San Diego and director of the university’s Laboratory on International Law and Regulation.

The Obama record is hard to assess because it is still young and because almost everything that relates to energy and environmental issues takes a long time to bear fruit. And any assessment of Obama must begin with reality: His backers assumed he would work miracles, but when he took office they learned he was human. And no human president can fix all of Washington’s woes.

The biggest achievement of the Obama administration is likely to be on energy efficiency — especially efficiency for vehicles. The administration has been reworking the system for vehicle efficiency, which the George W Bush administration had tentatively begun. The Obama administration is also radically raising fuel efficiency standards at a rate — and perhaps also cost — that will be unprecedented. Since most U.S. oil consumption goes into surface transportation, the effect of these standards, along with the effect of high energy prices, should bend down the curve in U.S. oil consumption and lead to better oil security.

The biggest disappointment is surely on climate change legislation. Many factors killed cap and trade, but a major part of the story was the failure of leaders (on the Hill and in the White House) to force decisions before the long, drawn-out debate in the Senate dragged the legislation into gridlock. Absent federal legislation on climate change, the country is left with a patchwork of regulatory approaches — and a faith-based reliance on the rise of natural gas — that isn’t a serious substitute for policy strategy.

Among the sleeper issues is energy innovation policy — an area where the Obama administration initially made big strides that were lubricated with stimulus funds. But that progress could be undone by budget troubles. Indeed, almost everything the administration does on almost every topic is likely to be assessed by historians through what happens to the federal budget.

Phil Radford

Phil Radford, executive director of Greenpeace USA.

President Obama’s record on the environment and energy policy has been lackluster. He took office promising to lead the fight against global warming, and yet stood silently by as polluters and their lobbyists took over the legislative process. Without the president’s leadership, we ended up with a disastrously compromised climate bill in the House, and efforts died in the Senate. Some have noted the president’s “bad luck” with energy policy; just weeks after Obama opened our coasts to increased offshore oil drilling, BP’s disaster in the Gulf of Mexico reminded Americans of the dangers of offshore drilling. And soon after calling for more nuclear power plants, the Fukushima nuclear disaster showed just how dangerous nuclear reactors and their radioactive waste can be. But calling this bad luck misses the point — the inherent risk of catastrophic impacts to the environment and public health is exactly why expanding development of dangerous energy sources is bad policy.

It’s not all bleak though. After so many years of lax enforcement, we’re encouraged by the EPA’s efforts to create meaningful clean air protections. Obama’s test will be whether he stands behind those in his administration who are working hard to protect the air we breathe, or caves yet again to the polluter lobbyists that still run so much of Washington. If Obama lets the coal industry and their backers in Congress block the EPA’s efforts to protect our communities, our air, and our climate, he will have failed not only in his environmental promises but also in his promise to change the way our government works.

Frances Beinecke

Frances Beinecke, president of the Natural Resources Defense Council.

President Obama has laid out a clear and compelling vision for our energy future and the need to safeguard our environment and health. He has effectively organized his administration around those goals and worked to gather the national resources needed to achieve them. And there have been historic results. His requirement that new cars get 35.5 miles per gallon by 2016 will save us 1.3 million barrels of oil a day and cut annual carbon emissions by more than 220 million tons. We hope and expect that he will soon require new cars to get close to 60 miles per gallon by 2025. Come September, EPA will propose standards aimed at reducing carbon from our largest emitters: coal-burning power plants. It is essential he continues to provide crucial support to EPA on this issue.

In other areas, especially on energy, we need to see and hear more from the president.

A major disappointment was the failure to enact legislation that would curb climate pollution and spur a new clean-energy economy. After the House passed sweeping climate and energy legislation five months after he took office, Obama could have done more to promote the bill in the Senate. He will have to demonstrate that commitment going forward with concrete administrative actions that meet his pledge in Copenhagen of reducing U.S. emissions by 17 percent by 2020. We also need him to say no to the Keystone XL pipeline proposal. Most of all, since Republicans took the House last November on a wave of Tea Party discontent, we need him to stand strong in the face of the most aggressive assault in a generation on the quality of our air, waters, wildlife and lands.

Andrew Revkin

Andrew Revkin, author of The New York Times “Dot Earth” blog and a fellow at Pace Academy for Applied Environmental Studies at Pace University.

President Obama spent too much political energy backing the traditional environmental stance that human-driven global warming was a conventional pollution problem that could be cleaned up like sewage or smog through regulation. His vision of the “green jobs” benefits from stimulus spending — focused on near-term, visible work like caulking windows — was far too truncated, and he lost the chance to build a broader coalition around making a sustained energy quest America’s new imperative. That approach could have gained more support and would more accurately reflect the momentous shift that would be required to supply energy to some 9 billion people by mid-century with the fewest regrets.

His greatest achievement has been maintaining the capacity to seek compromise, outside the glare of polarized public discourse, on tough issues like moving forward with new fuel economy standards for vehicles. It is that quality that, should he win a second term, provides the prospect for building a sustainable energy future and environment for the country and the planet.

Kenneth Green

Kenneth Green, resident scholar in energy and the environment at the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research.

First, my values: Like all Americans, I want a healthy environment, and clean energy. I also want to preserve our fundamental values of freedom and responsibility, personal and economic opportunity, and an ever-increasing quality of life. In the context of those latter values, I give the Obama administration poor marks on both energy and environmental policy.

On energy, the administration’s drilling/mining moratoria, “clean energy” subsidies, and continued support of corn ethanol have advanced unaffordable and unreliable energy at the expense of abundant, affordable, and reliable conventional alternatives that are, themselves, increasingly clean. On environment, the administration has unwisely allowed the EPA — an agency with a near-perfect record of disregard for the costs of its regulations — to embark on an economically destabilizing regulatory crusade in the middle of an historic economic slump.

Rather than admitting our economic conditions call for caution and preventing aggressive environmental and energy initiatives from making things worse, EPA and the Department of Energy have focused on an ideological agenda laid out in President Obama’s candidacy, which talked of making energy prices skyrocket while bankrupting the coal industry. We all want a healthy environment and clean energy. But we also want economic growth, employment opportunity, global competitiveness, and better quality of life. The Obama administration has gone too far in putting the green values of environmental protection ahead of economic values that would put more green in people’s pockets.

Mindy Lubber

Mindy Lubber, president of Ceres, a U.S. coalition of investors, environmental groups, and public interest groups working with companies on sustainability issues.

There’s no question President Obama has a vision for a new clean energy economy and is trying to use the tools in his tool kit to get us there. His stimulus package was strongly oriented toward clean energy and energy efficiency programs. He struck a good deal with carmakers on mileage standards through 2016 — and hopefully will stick to his guns on the strongest possible standards for 2017-25, which would be the best deal for consumers in the face of rising gas prices. He uses executive orders to incentivize clean energy, is standing firm in support of the EPA’s pollution control mandates, and has highlighted his priorities with many visits to companies driving the transition in everything from solar panels to electric cars to advanced transmissions.

The big disappointment of course has to be last year’s failure to move comprehensive energy and climate legislation through the U.S. Senate after it passed the House. As he’s doing now in the debt ceiling and budget talks, the president could have intervened personally and earlier by using his bully pulpit to galvanize Americans and policymakers on the urgency and economic imperative for launching the clean energy transition. He also could have better leveraged very strong business and investor support for comprehensive energy and climate policies.

The nature of our entwined energy and environmental crises is quite literally unprecedented in human history. Deniers, skeptics and ideologues may ultimately block larger initiatives even in the face of that reality, but the president would do better to unflinchingly treat this crisis more with the gravity and forceful personal attention it deserves.

Joseph Romm

Joseph Romm, senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, where he runs the blog, Climate Progress. He is a former acting assistant secretary of energy.

Obama’s overall record on energy and the environment deserves an F. Fundamentally he let die our best chance to preserve a livable climate and restore U.S. leadership in clean energy — without a serious fight.

Future generations are thus still headed toward a world of 10 degrees F warming, widespread Dust-Bowl-ification, ever-worsening extreme weather, seas several feet higher and rising several inches a decade, and a hot, acidified ocean filled with ever-worsening dead zones.

It bears repeating that most of the blame for this failure should go to the anti-science, pro-pollution ideologues. They have spread disinformation and poisoned the debate so that is no longer even recognizable. But the growing power of those ideologues is precisely why the country can only contemplate serious environmental or clean energy legislation when we have a Democratic president and large Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress. Obama not only failed to seize this one brief shining moment, but his own inactions have ensured such a moment won’t return for a generation. In particular, by failing to defend climate science from the disinformation campaign, he has made it that much harder to develop the political consensus for action.

Obama’s great accomplishments are the big boost to the clean energy economy in the stimulus, the boost to fuel economy standards, and the EPA’s endangerment finding — although the jury is out on whether that finding will actually lead to any significant change in our emissions trajectory. But these all pale in comparison to the failure to get a climate and clean energy bill and his silence on climate science.

William Reilly

William Reilly, former administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, 1989-1993, and founding partner of Aqua International Partners, a private equity fund that invests in water and renewable energy. He also co-chaired President Obama’s Gulf oil spill commission.

President Obama and the Administration have confronted challenges in responding to climate change, oceans policy, the catastrophe of the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, and in transportation and energy policy. On the oil spill, after a halting start, the president and his administration mobilized an inventive and unprecedentedly large response, which was ultimately effective and a success amid the tragedy. In addition, President Obama has adopted a policy of “marine spatial planning” that will integrate oversight of all the various uses and resources of the seas.

The president wisely used his power with the auto industry to win new fuel economy requirements. These will have serious advantages in reducing CO2 emissions, along with an impact on oil imports and the balance of trade, and will incentivize research on alternative fuels. It is the president’s signal environmental achievement, which he is now attempting to build on more ambitiously for a longer timeframe.

A less edifying engagement with climate policy was the White House’s deferral to the Congress of the initiative to pass climate legislation. The White House expended much less political capital on climate policy than on health care, and the resulting debacle in Copenhagen was a consequence. The president was brave to attend the conference and secure what he could while playing a bad hand, but the ensuing consensus that an international climate agreement is no longer plausible is the unhappy child of Copenhagen.

The Administration’s vigorous and effective Environmental Protection Agency continues, so far without political interference, to promulgate highly ambitious and expensive new rules, such as the regulation on sulfur oxide and nitrogen oxide in power plants. The astonishingly short compliance deadline for a rule requiring very large capital investments by power plants can be read as insurance that the rules will be implemented before the election and more likely to withstand attack afterwards. Finally, the priority for investing directly and through loan guarantees in alternative energy has raised the profile and capital for an industry sector that was stalled across much of the country. Although several of the investments have foundered, the impulse to foster a more robust and enduring portfolio of clean energy investments is a credit to the Administration.

Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger

Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger are, respectively, the president and chairman of The Breakthrough Institute, which is dedicated to modernizing liberal thought in the 21st century. They are the authors of Breakthrough: From the Death of Environmentalism to the Politics of Possibility.

During his State of the Union, the president famously asked, “Shall we surrender to our surroundings, or shall we make our peace with nature and begin to make reparations for the damage we have done to our air, to our land, and to our water?”

President Obama in 2010? No, President Nixon in 1970. Where the Republican president would go on to sign landmark environmental legislation into law, the Democratic one would watch cap-and-trade — and the prospects of a global climate treaty — go down in ignominious defeat. Some insist that had Obama’s rhetoric been equally soaring, cap-and-trade would have passed. But Nixon was symptomatic of an era when Americans overwhelmingly favored environmental protection, even if it curbed economic growth.
Obama’s problem was with his policy agenda, not his rhetoric. The president’s own agencies predicted cap-and-trade would increase unemployment. Had Obama instead sought a big, long-term investment in advanced energy technology — like the kind candidate Obama promised in 2008 — he might have succeeded.

Where Obama has succeeded is in rejecting the apocalyptic for the aspirational. While some of his signature stimulus program was wasted on low-wage efficiency jobs, other parts were invested in advanced energy technology and manufacturing. His 2011 State of the Union stressed the critical role innovation plays in driving growth. And he has remained steadfast in his support for nuclear power.

Where the environment was once a bipartisan issue, climate change has made it quintessentially partisan. While Obama’s focus on cap-and-trade no doubt polarized the national energy debate, he has since self-corrected to focus on energy technology innovation. Whether or not anti-government Tea Partiers or apocalyptic greens can ever get behind that agenda, Obama has charted a course that holds the potential for Americans to embrace technology and innovation as the key to having both economic growth and environmental protection.