President Barack Obama has made protecting the environment and combating climate change one of the cornerstones of his presidency. He has said many times that he "believes that no challenge poses a greater threat to our children, our planet and future generations than climate change — and that no other country on Earth is better equipped to lead the world towards a solution."
Knowing that green initiatives are historically unlikely to win bipartisan support, he once pledged that "if Congress won't act soon to protect future generations, I will." And he has made good on that promise, using his authority under the Antiquities Act of 1906 more times than any other president in history. So as Obama nears the end of his second term in office, let's take a look at his record on the environment.
1. Established the largest marine reserve in the world
This coral reef is part of the Palmyra Atoll, which is located within the Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument. (Photo: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service/Flickr)
In September 2014, Obama expanded the Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument (PRIMNM) to encompass more than 490,000 square miles — an area six times its original size when it was created by President George W. Bush in January 2009. PRIMNM includes seven atolls and small islands in the Pacific Ocean that are home to corals, fish, shellfish, marine mammals, birds, insects and plants found nowhere else on the planet. Also, the area is "completely off limits to commercial resource extraction including commercial fishing."
2. Signed a bipartisan ban on microbeads
On Dec. 28, 2015, Obama signed into a law a ban on microbeads — the tiny plastic exfoliants found in beauty products and toothpastes that enter our waterways, get flushed into ecosystems and are consumed by fish and other marine life. The law "prohibits the manufacture and introduction into interstate commerce of rinse-off cosmetics containing intentionally-added plastic microbeads," and the first steps take effect on July 1, 2017, when the production of some microbead products becomes illegal.
3. Rejected Keystone XL oil pipeline
A crowd of 35,000 to 50,000 gathered near the Washington Monument on February 17, 2013, to protest the Keystone XL pipeline. (Photo: Jmcdaid/Wikimedia Commons)
On Nov. 6, 2015, Obama rejected construction of the 1,179-mile pipeline from Canada to the Texas Coast that became a symbol of the debate over his climate change policies. After a seven-year review, the president nixed the TransCanada proposal, which Republicans promised would create thousands of new jobs, and said: “America is now a global leader when it comes to taking serious action to fight climate change. Frankly, approving this project would have undercut that global leadership.”
4. Appointed a tough new EPA administrator
On July 18, 2013, the U.S. Senate confirmed Gina McCarthy as administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Obama nominated McCarthy in his second term, saying her work at the EPA's Office of Air and Radiation, five years as head of Connecticut's Department of Environmental Protection and 25 years as an environmental official in Massachusetts more than qualified her for the job. Also, she had been developing federal emissions and air-quality standards for the Obama administration, earning herself the nickname of Obama's "green quarterback." McCarthy is reportedly respected on both sides of the aisle for her willingness to negotiate, and she has worked for both Democrats and Republicans. In Massachusetts, Gov. Mitt Romney appointed her undersecretary for policy at the Executive Office for Environmental Affairs.
5. Voted against the Clear Skies Act
In 2002, President George W. Bush proposed the Clear Skies Initiative, which the EPA says would have reduced power plant emissions of sulfur dioxide (SO2), nitrogen oxides (NOx) and mercury by setting a national cap on each pollutant. (Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
When he was a new senator in Washington, D.C., Obama served on the Environment and Public Works committee. A George W. Bush administration initiative called the Clear Skies Act, which Republicans said would reduce air pollution and boost the economy, was in front of the committee for a vote. As an Illinois state legislator, he had a reputation for supporting environmental issues, and most Democrats felt the plan would weaken clean-air regulations, delay the enforcement of smog and soot standards and exempt power plants from emission rules. As the swing vote on the committee, he voted against the plan and killed the legislation.
6. Expanded the California Coastal National Monument
The Point Arena-Stornetta Unit is part of the California Coastal National Monument. (Photo: Bureau of Land Management/Flickr)
In March 2014, Obama established the first shoreline addition to the monument, which consists of 20,000 rocks, islands, exposed reefs and pinnacles along 1,100 miles of Northern California's coast. The addition is a swath of rocky shores, river corridors, meadows and wetlands known as Point Arena-Stornetta Public Lands. “In my State of the Union address, I said that I would use my authority to protect more of our pristine federal lands for future generations.” he said in a statement. “Our country is blessed with some of the most beautiful landscapes in the world. It’s up to us to protect them, so our children’s children can experience them, too.”
7. Established the largest ocean sanctuary on the planet
A green sea turtle swims under Midway Island Pier at Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument. (Photo: Greg McFall/NOAA)
Hawaii's Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument — a UNESCO World Heritage site and home to more than 7,000 species of wildlife, some of them endangered — was the Earth's largest ocean sanctuary when George W. Bush created it in 2006. But over the years it slipped down to 10th, so Obama quadrupled its size. "[N]ew scientific exploration and research has revealed new species and deep sea habitats as well as important ecological connections between the existing monument and the adjacent waters," the White House said. "Today's designation will expand the existing Marine National Monument by 442,781 square miles, bringing the total protected area of the expanded monument to 582,578 square miles."
8. Raised fuel-efficiency standards
As traffic zoomed along a San Francisco highway in May 2009, President Obama announced new fuel efficiency standards for cars and small trucks to cut vehicle carbon emissions and raise mileage by 30 percent. (Photo: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
On July 29, 2011, President Obama announced an agreement with 13 major automakers to increase fuel economy from from 29.7 miles per gallon to 54.5 miles per gallon for cars and light-duty trucks by 2025. The White House said the "national program to improve fuel economy and reduce greenhouse gas emissions will save consumers more than $1.7 trillion at the gas pump and reduce U.S. oil consumption by 12 billion barrels."
“There is not another air-pollution-control strategy that we know of that will produce as substantial, cost-effective, and expeditious emissions reductions,” said Bill Becker, executive director of the National Association of Clean Air Agencies, about the policy.
9. Unveiled the Clean Power Plan
The W. A. Parish Power Plant in Texas is one of the largest coal-fired power plants in the U.S. (Photo: Roy Luck/Flickr)
The goal of the Clean Power Plan, which was first proposed by the EPA in 2014, is to reduce carbon pollution from power plants. According to the EPA, when the plan is fully in place in 2030, carbon pollution from the power sector will be 32 percent below 2005 levels — or 870 million fewer tons of carbon pollution. That’s equal to the annual emissions from 70 percent of the nation’s passenger vehicles, the EPA says. The White House says it establishes the first-ever national limits for mercury, arsenic and other toxic air pollution from power plants. Also, the policy would require states to meet specific carbon emission reduction standards based on their particular energy consumption.
The Clean Power Plan was also the basis for a historic 2014 agreement with China in which the two countries agreed to dramatic reductions in their greenhouse gas emissions. This was a game-changing collaboration not only because the planet's top two emitters of carbon dioxide promised their largest-ever emissions cuts, but also because it paved the way for the 2015 Paris Agreement, in which 195 different countries agreed to reduce carbon emissions.
In August 2015, Obama unveiled the final version of the plan, but since then, it has been the subject of a lengthy court battle. On one side is Obama, the EPA, 18 states and various environmental groups. On the other side are even more states, electric companies, coal companies and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. "This is a huge case," Judge Brett M. Kavanaugh, one of 10 judges on a powerful federal appeals court in Washington, D.C., that's hearing the case, told CNN, and he added it could "fundamentally" transform the industry. Which may be why the Clean Power Plan is currently frozen as the U.S. Supreme Court voted not to implement it until the appeals process plays out.
10. Established America's Great Outdoors Initiative
A U.S. Army Corps of Engineers park ranger took students on a nature hike at the Effie Yeaw Nature Center in California in support of President Obama’s America’s Great Outdoors Initiative. (Photo: U.S. Army Corps of Engineers/flickr)
In 2010, President Obama launched this initiative to develop a "21st century conservation and recreation strategy." And by November 2011, the Department of the Interior had released a listing of projects in all 50 U.S. states, including the Rio Salado River Pathways Program in Arizona and the Yampa River Basin Project in Colorado. According to the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), some of the key goals were:
- Enhance recreational access and opportunities.
- Raise awareness of the value and benefits of America's great outdoors.
- Engage young people in conservation and the great outdoors.
- Establish great urban parks and community green spaces.
- Conserve rural working farms, ranches and forests through partnerships and incentives.
- Conserve and restore our federal lands and waters.
- Protect and renew rivers and other waters.
11. Signed the Omnibus Public Land Management Act of 2009
The Kearsarge Lakes within the Sierra Nevada mountain range in California were permanently protected under the Omnibus Public Land Management Act of 2009. (Photo: Terabass/Wikimedia Commons)
The White House called this largely bipartisan bill the "most extensive expansion of land and water conservation in more than a generation, designating more than two million acres of federal wilderness, thousands of miles of trails and protecting more than 1,000 miles of rivers."
When land is designated as federal wilderness, it receives the highest form of protection of any federal wildland and becomes part of the National Wilderness Preservation System, according to the Wilderness Society. Nine states — California, Colorado, Idaho, Michigan, New Mexico, Oregon, Utah, Virginia and West Virginia — were included in the bill.
12. Used the Antiquities Act more than any president in history
Obama used his power under the Antiquities Act of 1906 to establish the San Juan Islands National Monument, an archipelago of over 450 islands, rocks and pinnacles in Washington state's Puget Sound. (Photo: Bureau of Land Management/Flickr)
President Obama used his authority under the Antiquities Act of 1906 — which allows U.S. presidents to make a presidential proclamation to create national monuments from public lands to protect significant natural, cultural or scientific landmarks — at least 23 times. For example, in New York City, Obama designated Christopher Park and renamed it the Stonewall National Monument to pay homage to the Stonewall riots that happened nearby in 1968, launching the modern gay rights movement. And in New Mexico, he designated the Rio Grande del Norte National Monument, which according to the BLM "is comprised of rugged, wide open plains at an average elevation of 7,000 feet, dotted by volcanic cones, and cut by steep canyons with rivers tucked away in their depths."
"Every president has used the Antiquities Act, and some have used it more than others," said Theresa Pierno, president of the National Parks Conservation Association, an independent parks advocacy group, told USA Today. "But it is very different, what Obama has done. You've started to see his protection of parks that tell very important stories that have been neglected in our history."
13. Invested in green energy during the Great Recession
The Recovery Act spurred renewable energy projects across the U.S., including wind farms like the Alta Wind Energy Centre in Kern County, California, which is one of the largest wind farms in the U.S. (Photo: Z22/Wikimedia Commons)
To help Americans struggling financially during the economic downturn in the mid-2000s, Obama signed the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) in 2009 (aka the Stimulus Bill or Recovery Act). While the primary objective of this mammoth bill was to get people back to work right away, it also aimed to provide relief for industries hard-hit by the recession, such as education, health and renewable energy. In fact, the ARRA contained upward of $90 billion in subsidies for green energy, according to the White House.
In addition, Obama established tax credits for homeowners who made energy-efficient improvements to their existing homes, bought alternative energy equipment (like solar hot water heaters) or bought electric cars, according to the Internal Revenue Service (IRS). And $500 million was set aside for the Department of Labor to train green-collar workers. Other environment-related highlights of the bill include:
- funding for 180 advanced energy manufacturing projects.
- the creation or expansion of 100,000 renewable energy projects across the country by offering new options for financing, as was the case at the Alta Wind Energy Centre in California, one of the world’s largest wind farms.
- lower costs for many clean energy technologies, making them more competitive against fossil fuels.
- weatherization of more than 1 million low-income homes to improve energy efficiency.
14. Started a plan to save bees and pollinators
In 2014, Obama created a "Federal Strategy to Promote the Health of Honey Bees and Other Pollinators" and established the Pollinator Health Task Force, which was charged with developing a National Pollinator Health Strategy, which it released a year later. The goals of the strategy, according to the EPA, are:
- Restore honeybee colony health to sustainable levels by 2025.
- Increase Eastern monarch butterfly populations to 225 million butterflies by 2020.
- Restore or enhance 7 million acres of land for pollinators over the next five years.
15. Established America's first National Ocean Policy
Also known as the National Policy for the Stewardship of the Ocean, our Coasts, and the Great Lakes (what a mouthful), this 2013 policy didn't create any new regulations or authorities. Instead, its goal is to "ensure the many federal agencies involved in ocean management work together to reduce duplication and red tape and use taxpayer dollars more efficiently," according to a press release. The Bureau of Ocean Energy Management calls this a "living document" that "focuses on improving coordination to increase administrative efficiencies in the federal permitting process; better manage the ocean, coastal, and Great Lakes resources that drive so much of our economy; develop and disseminate sound scientific information that local communities, industries, and decision-makers can use; and collaborate more effectively with state, tribal, and local partners, marine industries, and other stakeholders."
As this NationSwell story shows, politicians, environmentalists and other leaders have a range of opinions about Obama's record regarding the environment. And while some of the most die-hard environmentalists may feel he didn't do quite enough (Annie Leonard, executive director of Greenpeace, says his administration continues to lease massive amounts of publicly-owned fossil fuels, for example), this quote from Carol M. Browner, former EPA chief during the Clinton administration and director of the Office of Energy and Climate Change Policy from 2009 to 2011, may sum up his achievements best:
"The president’s legacy on climate change lies in his success in making climate change a central policy obligation, getting millions of Americans to care about it, bringing along industry and other stakeholders, and tackling the problem in the face of withering opposition from Congress."