Dear EarthTalk: Now that his second term is winding down, what will President Barack Obama’s environmental legacy look like?
—Mary Danson, Littleton, NH
The environment may not have been one of candidate Barack Obama’s signature issues in the run-up to the 2008 election; nonetheless, environmentalists were pleased that he won. The non-partisan League of Conservation Voters (LCV) gave Obama an 86 percent rating back then for his Congressional voting track record on bills related to the environment. (His Republican opponent, John McCain, scored a paltry 24 percent according to LCV’s standards.) But even though Obama was talking the talk on emissions reductions, clean energy and other hot button green issues, environmentalists worried that other higher priority concerns could distract the well-meaning young president from focusing on saving the planet.
But cut to the present eight years later, and a much grayer Obama has not only walked the green walk, but will go down in history as one of the greatest environmental presidents of all time. Chief among his sustainability-oriented accomplishments is steering the nation toward a future with fewer greenhouse emissions. One major step was pushing through the Clean Power Plan, calling on electric utilities to reduce their carbon emissions by 32 percent of 2005 levels within 10 years. The plan, which will likely be decided by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2017, is a key part of Obama’s efforts to fight global warming. Obama worked hard to finalize the plan in plenty of time for other countries participating in international climate talks to make similarly strong commitments in time for the December 2015 Paris climate accord, when 194 countries signed on the dotted line volunteering significant cuts to greenhouse gas emissions.
Another point of environmental pride for President Obama is his designation of 29 new national monuments protecting some 553 million acres of naturally and/or culturally significant land and waters. Key adds to the U.S. conservation docket under Obama include the 257 million offshore acres in the Pacific west of Hawaii, 1.8 million acres in the California desert, and most recently another 1.5 million acres across two desert tracts in Nevada and Utah.
Environmentalists were critical of Obama at the end of his first term for his lack of attention to conservation: The Obama White House at that point had protected far fewer acres than any of his four predecessors. George W. Bush set aside just under four million acres, Bill Clinton protected some 27 million, George H.W. Bush conserved almost 18 million, and Ronald Reagan protected 12.5 million. But Obama came on strong during his second term and now can boast protecting at least three times as much federal land and water from development as any previous president.
The Obama administration also made great strides on greasing the wheels of the clean energy transition by re-upping renewable energy financial incentives, rejecting the Keystone XL and DAPL pipeline projects, and establishing offshore drilling bans in the Arctic and Atlantic. But the $64,000 question remains: which of the environmental accomplishments of the last eight years will Donald Trump overturn. After all, Trump has stated his intent to overturn the Clean Power Plan, pull out of or ignore the Paris climate accord, gut the EPA, and open up significant amounts of federal land to oil and gas drilling. Only time will tell if Trump can tarnish Obama’s otherwise shining environmental track record.