“There’s one issue that will define the contours of this century more dramatically than any other,” said US President Barack Obama at the UN Climate Change Summit in 2014. “And that is the urgent and growing threat of a changing climate.”
For the past eight years, as the 44th president of the United States, Obama has been at the helm of the world’s largest and most influential economy. If anyone has had the power to change worldwide dependence on fossil fuels and tackle climate change, it was him. But that doesn’t mean he was able to just flip a switch and turn the world into a sustainable paradise. He faced obstacles everywhere he turned and even when it seemed like he was bound to secure an environmental victory, new snares would emerge to hobble his ambitions.
Standing in his way were: the momentum of the global economy, reluctance of other global leaders to make bold moves, and, above all, resistance from Republicans in Congress. Despite all this, Obama was able to craft an enduring legacy that set in motion the potential transformation of the US energy sector.
But was it enough?
“The real question is if the actions this administration took on renewable energy were at the scale necessary to confront the climate crisis,” Jamie Henn, Strategic Communications Director and Co-Founder of 350.org, an environmental activist organization, told Global Citizen. “The answer is, sadly, no. Obama did more than any other president before him, but it still wasn't enough.”
“That's because climate change isn't just some little problem — it's a major, civilization-ending threat,” he said. “We need more than just an ambitious policy approach, we need an all-out clean energy revolution.
“With [President-Elect Donald] Trump in the White House, we're going to need cities, states, businesses, banks, and everyday people to help drive action forward over the coming four years.”
So what did Obama do to help the environment as president? Here are seven of his greatest environmental accomplishments:
He Championed the First Global Climate Agreement
The Paris climate agreement, otherwise known as COP21, was the first global agreement for tackling climate change ever enacted. All previous attempts were stifled in some way, oftentimes by the US. While the plan is ultimately modest in scope, it’s the first time countries ever collectively agreed to reducing carbon emissions.
“The Paris agreement would not have happened without the support of Obama and Secretary of State Kerry,” Michael Gerrard, director of the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law, told Global Citizen.
“But due to hostility in the Senate, which blocked ratification of any binding treaty, the Paris agreement was not nearly as strong as would be needed to meet the global temperature goals,” he said.
He Forced Power Plants to Be Cleaner
This executive order went after the biggest source of greenhouse gas emissions: power plants. Even though it was ultimately suspended by an unusual Supreme Court ruling, it sent a signal to the energy sector that reforms have to take place. Investments in more efficient coal plants have boomed and energy providers across the country are now investing more in renewables than fossil fuels. This shift has attracted bipartisan support because it makes so much economic sense. For example, both Texas and Iowa are leaders in wind power.
He Stopped Cars From Polluting So Much
In 2009, the Obama administration imposed new regulations for automobile emissions and, since then, automakers have had to dramatically improve fuel efficiency. Since there has been broad compliance with this ruling, with a few exceptions, it has had a big impact on per capita emissions.
“I think the most consequential [effort] in terms of leading to reduced emissions was the tightened motor vehicles standards that were adopted in 2010,” said Gerrard. “Those have led to much cleaner cars and are saving consumers enormous amounts of money in reduced gasoline purchases.”
He Made Sure That Energy Use Is Efficient
US households and businesses could be using far less energy if simple measures were taken to improve efficiency. The easiest switch would be to install LED lights everywhere, getting rid of terribly inefficient incandescent bulbs in the process. But appliances of all sorts — furnaces, refrigerators, air conditions, etc. — tend to use far more energy than they need to.
Throughout his years as president, Obama has escalated pressure on appliance makers to improve efficiency standards. Today, more than 46 appliance categories have to meet higher standards. Collectively, this means people and companies are using less energy and will cut more than 210 million tons of carbon emissions annually. (For an interesting look at how energy providers are helping to drive this change, read this piece.)
“The biggest missed opportunity was to do even more with the Recovery Act,” Henn of 350.org said. “There were plans prepared for huge investments in mass transit and grid modernization, but they were shelved because the projects weren't 'shovel ready' enough.”
He Funded a Renewable Energy Revolution
The Obama administration has invested billions in renewable energy, kickstarting an industry that is beginning to transform the global energy sector and provide millions of jobs in the process. The president has also persuaded the private sector to embrace the transition to renewable energy. By 2014, the Department of Energy had invested $34 billion in renewables, turning a profit in the process. In 2015, more than $4 billion in investments was committed by a private sector coalition led by the White House.
“During his second term, President Obama shifted from an 'all of the above' energy policy to more of a 'keep it in the ground' approach thanks to the climate movement's strong and persistent activism,” said Henn. “It's easy for politicians to support renewable energy, it's much harder to take on the fossil fuel industry.
“President Obama showed real courage when he rejected the Keystone XL pipeline, delayed Dakota Access, and began to protect more public lands and waters from fossil fuel development,” Henn said.
He Protected the Planet
Obama has protected more acres of land and water than any president in US history. In total, 19 newly designated national monuments comprising 260 million acres will be protected from exploitation.
These efforts will protect wildlife, limit fossil fuel extraction, and promote greater ecological sustainability.
He Made Farming and Fishing More Sustainable
Through a series of measures, Obama helped farmers to adapt to climate change through more sustainable practices that promote soil health, enhance nutrient and manure management, protect sensitive lands, and encourage.
His administration also went after the escalating problem of overfishing, which has pushed countless fish species closer to extinction. By establishing marine sanctuaries and more effectively managing how fish are caught, the administration was able to restore many fisheries to safe levels.
Obama understands the risks of climate change and has done a lot to safeguard the environment for future generations. But his legacy could be imperilled as the new administration changes the country’s energy policies over the next four years.
Fortunately, the private sector has decisively shifted toward clean energy and the momentum may be too great for any single administration to undermine.
“I think the momentum of growth will continue, not mostly because of policies, but because of improvements in technologies and economics,” Gerrard said.
And if the US continues to lead on environmental innovation, then Obama will be recognized as a staunch and resolute opponent of climate change.
“From the stimulus package to Moniz's tenure at the Energy Department, this administration has been a champion of renewable energy,” said Henn.