Is Obama an Environmentalist?

Eyeing a mixed record and obstructionist Congress, activists hope for the best.

David Moberg

In Andover, Mass., IBEW members at the defense contractor Raytheon yell at workers crossing the picket line during a strike over job security and benefits.

As a candidate for president, Barack Obama often said a top priority for his administration would be to address the interrelated environment, energy and climate change issues. 

Obama chose not to use the power of his office to educate voters about the climate crisis. Instead, he deferred to poll-driven pragmatists like Rahm Emanuel who saw the issue as a loser politically.

In his first months in office, he delivered on the hope he had inspired, starkly breaking with Bush-era policies. Through legislation and executive actions, Obama dramatically increased auto fuel efficiency standards, directed the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to regulate greenhouse gas emissions and invested in both energy efficiency and clean, renewable energy. League of Conservation Voters President Gene Karpinski hailed the full court press” on critical issues by the president and his Green Dream Team.” In early 2009, Gallup reported, 79 percent of Americans approved of Obama’s environmental policies.

Now, two-and-a-half years later, the tone has changed as prominent progressive political figures with strong environmental credentials are cautiously criticizing Obama’s leadership on energy and environmental policy. Only 55 percent of voters say he’s doing a good job on the environment.

In a June Rolling Stone article, former Vice President Al Gore credited Obama with making significant progress on some key environmental challenges despite hardened opposition from big, polluting industries and their allied Republicans, whose leaders and core voters are increasingly ideologically right-wing and anti-scientific. 

Yet, he writes, President Obama has thus far failed to use the bully pulpit to make the case for bold action on climate change.” The president did not seriously fight against his congressional opponents. Gore writes,”President Obama has never presented to the American people the magnitude of the climate crisis. He has simply not made the case for action.” 

Greenest president in history’?

In a major energy speech on March 30, Obama made a strong argument for government intervention to promote efficiency and clean, alternative energy. But in a season of extreme weather events whose ferocity reflect existing climate change, Obama failed to mention floods, tornadoes, droughts and other man-made transformations of weather patterns. And he made only one limp reference to climate change – so those of us who are concerned about climate change” – as he defended his support for nuclear power. 

In June at the National Press Club, President Clinton’s interior secretary, Bruce Babbitt, called on Obama to take up the mantle of land and water conservation” against the Republicans’ most radical assaults on environmental protections in history. 

A year ago, influential Climate Progress blogger Joseph Romm labeled Obama’s tenure a failed presidency.” Yet even he wrote that the president had invested more in clean energy than all of his predecessors combined,” implemented fuel economy standards that represent the biggest greenhouse gas reductions in U.S. history” and (through the EPA) declared carbon dioxide a pollutant that must be regulated.” Romm concluded: These are major achievements that under any other circumstances would make Obama the greenest president in U.S. history.”

So which is it? Green giant or waffling capitulator?

In passing judgment on Obama’s environmental record, it’s important to keep in mind the economic and political context. Congress has passed most landmark environmental legislation when unemployment was at 6 percent or less and none when unemployment has been above 7.5 percent – well below the rate since Obama took office.

Economic woes rightly focused the Obama administration’s attention on creating jobs and regulating the financial sector. He chose to make healthcare a top priority. With the downturn magnifying feelings of insecurity, people were more susceptible to the familiar and false corporate claims that environmental protection costs too much and threatens jobs. Those claims are debunked by two new Economic Policy Institute studies showing that a proposed EPA standard for power plant toxic emissions would yield a modest employment increase and that all EPA regulations proposed or implemented under Obama would yield benefits worth from 12 to 32 times their cost. 

A Pew poll in May shows only staunch conservatives” among Republicans opposed to clean energy. Still, big majorities of most Republican sub-groups see no evidence of global warming. Financial jitters may also have contributed to the declining popular belief since 2008 that the earth’s climate is warming due to human activities – although solid majorities still agree with the conclusion shared by virtually all scientists. Even many people with scientifically accurate views do not feel an urgent need for action, according to a compilation of polls by The Resource Innovation Group, a nonprofit research group. Ironically, other polling shows very high support for developing alternative, clean energy. 

Obama chose not to use the power of his office to educate voters about the climate crisis and deferred to poll-driven pragmatists like former Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel who saw the issue as a loser politically. 

Instead of tackling global warming head-on, Obama talked about national security, efficiency, clean energy and green jobs, typically in support of policies that reduce greenhouse gases and boost both employment and manufacturing. Although he knew drill, baby, drill” was no answer to politically harmful rising oil prices, he supported offshore oil production and expanded coal mining to reduce oil imports.

Obama’s American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, which increased public and private investment in clean energy, was not just a jobs bill, but the single-most important piece of clean energy legislation in our nation’s history,” says Bracken Hendricks, former director of the green jobs-promoting Apollo Alliance. Equally important was Obama’s auto policy – the auto industry bailout, the cash for clunkers” program and new regulations – including the first ever of auto greenhouse gas emissions and the biggest hike in fuel efficiency since standards were initiated. 

That may be Obama’s single greatest accomplishment” on the environment and global warming, says Sierra Club legislative director Melinda Pierce. Despite concessions on industrial boilers and procedural delays, EPA carbon dioxide and toxic regulations for power plants will be transformative for the environment,” Pierce adds.

Leadership deficit

But on comprehensive climate change legislation, the administration did little to help Sens. John Kerry (D-Mass.), Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) and Lindsay Graham (R-S.C.) as they tried to put together a bill – largely by making concessions to nearly every major corporate interest. 

Ultimately, however, Kerry and Lieberman got no support from Republicans – not even Graham or Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who had previously supported action on climate change. (Now all Republican presidential aspirants deny global warming, even those who had previously acknowledged it.) 

Indeed, as Republicans have regained power in Congress, they have effectively blocked administration environmental legislative initiatives. They have also tried to pass riders to bills that would disempower the EPA and drastically cut clean energy investments.

Weiss argues that Obama continues to pursue a strong environmental agenda through executive decisions, even if he cannot win legislative victories like those of his first year in office. Administration officials have used the authority they have very aggressively, though not everything has come to fruition,” he says. That will be tested in the coming months as the EPA sets several important standards, including truck fuel standards and longer-term auto standards. (As of early July, the administration was pushing to boost emission standards to 56 miles per gallon by 2025, or roughly double current standards). 

Despite signs Obama may be wavering, many environmentalists feel confident that the administration will maintain its ambitious executive agenda. While Sierra Club Chairman Carl Pope thinks Obama will run for re-election on his clean energy achievements, a Los Angeles Times editorial predicts that Obama will ignore environmental voters. The final shape of Obama’s campaign and future policy may – like his record so far – reflect both green gains and muddled visions. 

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David Moberg, a former senior editor of In These Times, was on staff with the magazine from when it began publishing in 1976 until his passing in July 2022. Before joining In These Times, he completed his work for a Ph.D. in anthropology at the University of Chicago and worked for Newsweek. He received fellowships from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and the Nation Institute for research on the new global economy.

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