2016: Obama’s Climate Legacy Marked by Triumphs and Lost Opportunities

By relying on executive orders and regulations after his legislative majority disappeared, President Obama leaves his climate policies at risk under Donald Trump.

President Barack Obama took a trip to Alaska to see climate change firsthand
President Obama, touring Alaska's Kenai Fjords National Park in September, used his second term to address climate change, largely through executive action and regulations. Credit: Getty Images

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For all of President Barack Obama’s sweeping and historic achievements on climate change, most have come in a last rush of momentum in the final years of his second term. What they overshadow is that his greatest opportunity to reshape how the U.S. deals with what he called the greatest threat to future generations may have come in his first term, and it was lost to the pull of other priorities.

Obama had Democratic majorities in Congress during his first two years in office, and failing to press for national climate legislation during that time turned into perhaps his greatest strategic miscalculation, according to climate experts and advocates.

“The first term was essentially lost territory,” said Daniel Kammen, founding director of the Renewable and Appropriate Energy Laboratory at the University of California, Berkeley. “The second term was a totally different story.”

Obama had promised “a new chapter in America’s leadership on climate change,” but when he took office, he was facing the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. His priorities were saving major American industries, restoring faith in the economy and stemming spiraling unemployment. The Recovery Act, the bailout of the auto industry and the Wall Street reform act, Dodd-Frank, were at the top of the agenda Obama’s team pushed for, followed by health care reform.

Had the White House pushed for a comprehensive national climate plan early, it could have given Obama’s climate agenda legislative backing, making it much harder for his successor to undo. A cap-and-trade bill, Waxman-Markey, based heavily on a proposal by a coalition of industry and environmental groups, had squeaked through the House in 2009. But after its Republican backers in the Senate got cold feet, Obama rallied no support behind it and it fizzled there. Obama never developed his own legislation proposal to replace it.

“There were many reasons why the Senate was not able to act on climate change. They had been through these very partisan votes on the stimulus, Dodd-Frank, and affordable care, and they were not in the mood for another big fight,” said Eileen Claussen, the founding president of the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions, who led a coalition lobbying for a bill. “But I also think the Obama administration did not play a really strong role in trying to push it.”

Obama would never have another shot. Even before cap-and-trade capsized, he had been dealt an international setback when the Copenhagen climate talks failed to produce a global agreement that Obama believed would help him push domestic climate policies. The 2010 midterm elections then sealed the fate of the rest of Obama’s tenure.

Pro-fossil fuel industry groups spent record sums on Republican candidates in that election. The House flipped and the Democrats’ lead in the Senate narrowed as a new crop of climate deniers was swept into Congress. With global warming suddenly a political lightning rod and re-election looming in 2012, Obama talked about his climate programs mainly as a strategy for improving the economy, not the planet. Some of his plan was still ambitious, even monumental. He put a record $90 billion for clean energy into his stimulus package. He reached agreement with auto companies on improved fuel economy standards, a step they had resisted for 25 years.

But he also waffled on opposing the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline early on (although he eventually nixed it) and his administration dragged its feet on the Clean Power Plan, which he was under a court mandate to finalize by 2012. (It would be finished three years later.) He supported domestic energy production to spur the economy, overseeing an historic shale boom that would make the U.S. the No. 1 fossil fuel producing country in the world. “We have a supply of natural gas that can last America nearly 100 years,” Obama declared in his 2012 State of the Union, making clear that an all-of-the-above energy policy would be his stance that election year. “And my administration will take every possible action to safely develop this energy.”

“The decision to go all out for natural gas…turned out to be a great mistake—if you tally the methane that’s leaking,” said climate activist and 350.org founder Bill McKibben.

As his first term drew to a close, Obama clearly focused on making sure he’d have a second term. And the turnaround that ensued when he was re-elected is not lost on McKibben or anyone. The acceleration of his agenda from the Clean Power Plan to rejection of Keystone XL on climate change grounds, a climate deal with China, the successful Paris accord, many executive actions, even his decision last week to ban Arctic drilling ban, was dizzying.

“He clearly began to focus on this as the enormous legacy issue that it is, and did some things that will prove historic, even if the Trump years become a big detour,” McKibben said.

But he and others rue that it came so late.

“President Obama has forged an impressive legacy on climate change, and his administration has transformed the reputation of the United States in the international negotiations,” said Nicholas Stern, president of the British Academy and author of a landmark 2006 study on the economic impact of climate change. “It is regrettable that President Obama did not push this issue harder during his first term, which could have accelerated domestic and global action to curb greenhouse gas emissions.”

A Second, Climate-Action-Filled Term

Obama began his second term with a note of defiance against the forces aligned against climate action.

“We will respond to the threat of climate change, knowing that the failure to do so would betray our children and future generations,” he said in his second inaugural address before hundreds of thousands of people, tying the climate fight to the enduring struggles for equality and justice.

He unveiled his climate initiative on a hot June day on Georgetown University’s campus, literally rolling up his shirtsleeves as he spoke. “The question now is whether we will have the courage to act before it’s too late,” he said. “I refuse to condemn your generation and future generations to a planet that’s beyond fixing.”

Obama’s EPA moved on in his second term to tackling truck emissions, reining in methane leaks from the oil and gas industry and updating energy efficiency standards for home appliances. Obama established 23 national monuments, more than any other president in history, including the Papahanaumokuakea National Marine Monument in Hawaii, an ocean reserve twice the size of Texas.

President Obama's Historic Climate Record

The U.S. delegation also led the effort to amend an international agreement to reduce the highly potent greenhouse gases used in refrigeration, hydrofluorocarbons. That one agreement will negate the equivalent of 10 years of U.S. emissions.

Obama used a “thousand small hammers” to fashion a U.S. climate policy without the help of Congress, in the words of David Victor, director of the Laboratory on International Law and Regulation at University of California, San Diego.

“Frankly, I think that’s probably pretty good news, because there’s going to be such an effort to roll it back,” Victor said. “Having dozens of things, not all of which are going to be rolled back, is better than having one or two prime targets.”

The largest target is his signature initiative, the Clean Power Plan, which the U.S. Supreme Court stayed in February until the legal challenges are resolved. The plan was designed to cut carbon pollution from power plants 30 percent from 2005 levels, similar to the cuts that would have been imposed by the failed Waxman-Markey bill. Despite widespread opposition to the plan, most states are on track to meet their obligations under it, at least three recent studies have shown.

Obama’s legacy as an international leader on climate is more secure. The China-U.S. deal on carbon emissions that Obama and President Xi Jinping announced in November 2014 will stand as an even more important moment than the Paris agreement, some say. “For two countries that together account for 40 percent of the world’s energy use and carbon emissions to go from laggards to leaders is really extraordinary,” said Kammen, an international science envoy for the State Department. “And Paris would not have happened without the China agreement.”

Obama’s rejection of Keystone XL pipeline was another huge turning point.

“His rejection of KXL marked the first time a world leader turned down a big fossil fuel project on climate grounds—that’s pretty important,” said McKibben.

That momentum carried the U.S. into the climate negotiations in Paris in December 2015, when the countries of the world sealed the first climate pact requiring emissions-cutting commitments from every nation that has signed it. Now ratified by 118 of the 194 countries that signed, representing 80 percent of emissions, it is on track to become one of the most widely accepted treaties in the world.

“I’m not one who will say that Paris is the be-all, and end-all,” said Claussen, now an executive-in-residence at Elon University in North Carolina. “It’s not everything that I or anyone who’s been involved in this issue would have wanted. But Obama does deserve credit for making sure that we ended up in a place that was realistic. There’s no point in having a great agreement that nobody can sign on to.”

Obama’s mixed climate legacy is reflected in statistics. U.S. carbon dioxide emissions from energy fell by 9.5 percent from 2008-2015, and in the first six months of 2016, were at their lowest level in 25 years, according to a report by the White House Council of Economic Advisors. Improving vehicle fuel economy and expansion of renewable energy is partly the reason. (The U.S. tripled its wind-generated electricity and gets 30 times as much from solar as it did in 2008.) But the move from coal to newly abundant natural gas played a major role.

Under Obama, natural gas production, flat for the decade before he took office, rose 28 percent. U.S. oil production has soared 76 percent. On Obama’s watch, the United States surpassed Russia in gas production and Saudi Arabia in oil production.

As Obama prepares to give way to a successor who promises to snuff out his climate legacy, he seems to be trying to make that as difficult as possible.

Just this month, Obama used an obscure provision of the 1953 Outer Continental Shelf Land Act to announce what he said would be a permanent ban on offshore oil and gas drilling along wide areas of the Arctic and the Atlantic coast.

Said Nicholas Stern, “Mr. Obama continues to show great leadership on climate change even in the final days of his presidency.His public comments and speeches on climate change leave no doubt about his sincerity and commitment on climate change, both as president and as a father to two children.”

Todd Stern, who served as Obama’s chief international climate envoy from the start of his presidency through conclusion of the Paris deal, said he saw the evolution of Obama as a leader of the fight to curb global warming. “He always was very supportive of action on climate change. I think he became more and more cognizant of the really profound importance of it, and he kind of put his money where his mouth was.”