Landing in Anchorage on August 31, 2015, Barack Obama became the first sitting president in 15 years to make a formal visit to Alaska. He will also become the first president to visit Arctic Alaska, flying to the Inuit village of Kotzebue, which is being overtaken by ice melt and soil erosion. And he is arguably the first president ever to visit this Alaska, a hotter, wetter, and faster-changing Alaska than the world has ever known, whose melting glaciers, crumbling permafrost, rising seas, and eroding shores are threatening Alaskans’ livelihoods.
Far from a damper on his visit, the impacts of climate change are the central purpose of Obama’s trip to The Last Frontier: as a jarring visual capstone to his month devoted to climate change, and as an out-of-the-way layover to a United Nations climate summit in Paris.
(He also officially restored North America’s highest mountain, Mt. McKinley, to its original Native American name—Denali.)
You Know Obama Means Business When He Rolls Out WhiteHouse.Gov/Climate-Change
In early August, the Obama Administration proposed a new plan of action to combat climate change: the Clean Power Plan. It’s even got its own website with cool infographics and videos! Proving that he did his homework, Obama discusses how power plants generate far more carbon than any other source in the U.S., and—you wouldn’t believe it!—the federal government has never placed any limits on power plant carbon emissions, until now.
So is this a really big deal, or a meaningless gesture? Is this the grand finale of a presidency of environmental protection, or an apology note scrawled to Planet Earth after two terms of exploitation and neglect? Let’s explore.
Obama’s Climate Change Policy Has Been Under Fire Since Day One
Throughout his two terms, Obama has never been the darling of environmental activists. His tenure witnessed the extreme expansion of natural gas fracking and offshore drilling around the country; major trade growth and deregulation with countries with bad environmental records, particularly in Asia; and environmental disasters like the BP oil spill and the recent Animas River catastrophe.
In fact, just two weeks before landing in Alaska, Obama approved Shell to drill in the Arctic Ocean, despite the objections of environmentalists and coastal Alaskan communities. Environmental groups are greeting his visit with protests, condemnations of his “self-defeating hypocrisy,” and a campaign to end Arctic drilling (an industry that inconveniently brings many jobs to the state).
Activists highlighting the stains on Obama’s environmental record have every right and responsibility to do so, but they distract people from a somewhat brighter truth. Obama’s climate change policy has certainly not been flawless, but few presidents have paid more attention to the environment than Obama. Obama’s climate change policies have just been more severely scrutinized than any other president’s, giving him an inflated negative reputation.
Condemning Obama’s Climate Change Record is Ahistorical and Unfair
Environmentalists’ standards are stricter than they have ever been before—rightfully so, because our climate’s fate has never been so dire. Obama’s climate change agenda became their focal point not because his policies are so deplorable, but because they are more flexible and receptive than those of any other president.
In other words, environmentalists complain about Obama because they believe that he might actually do something about it. And they should keep complaining, because it works. But to call Obama’s climate change record terrible negates the same hope and expectation that drives environmentalists to complain to Obama in the first place.
Being U.S. President Is Like Driving a Hummer That Gets 1 Mile Per 80 Trillion Gallons of Gas
In 2009, Obama stepped into the driver’s seat of the most wasteful, energy inefficient country in the world—stuck in its deepest trench in decades. If he hadn’t laid on the gas to get us out of the trench, then millions of Americans would still be unemployed, we’d be wasting trillions of dollars to import oil and autos, and he would have lost his 2012 reelection to a climate change denier.
Undeniably, mistakes were made. But when other presidents may have just pushed forward Business As Usual to escape the Recession, Obama saw it as an opportunity to take large-scale baby-steps towards environmental sustainability: he bailed out the automakers while pressuring them to guzzle less gas. He expanded the energy sector, not in cheap and easy coal, but in natural gas, which burns much cleaner than other fossil fuels. He created jobs in wind and solar power, and in recent years, he has rolled out a series of regulations to limit carbon emissions in major industries and the energy sector.
His latest climate action, the Clean Power Plan, outdoes his prior actions in scale and ambition. It is wowing crowds in Alaska, though, environmentalists are still throwing nervous glances towards the encroaching oilrigs off shore.
In Paris, where Obama will be addressing other climate-conscious heads of state who relate to the impossible balancing act of running a country, he is betting on a standing ovation.
Obama’s End-Of-Term Swagger in Alaska: Is Clean Power Plan Just a Cheap Legacy Stunt?
In several ways, Obama is just taking advantage of an easy opportunity to solidify his legacy as a climate president.
The first way is that he is facing an open playing field. What other U.S. President can be considered a champion of climate change? Sometimes we revere Teddy Roosevelt as an environmentalist for founding the National Park system, but this is also the guy who took trips to Africa to shoot a bunch of lions and rhinos. One of the strongest environmental presidents was actually Richard Nixon, but he’s not exactly one for positive legacies. The George W. Bush years and even the Clinton years are starting to be condemned by history as a period of irresponsible growth.
(President Al Gore was not available for comment.)
With few presidents to compete with, Obama’s climate change policy has the opportunity to make history. By simply suggesting an ambitious, long-term climate policy that Obama will have very limited capacity to enact and see through, Obama’s name and legacy will forever paired with the carbon-reducing policies that environmentalists have spent decades fighting for.
Obama is very aware of this. With one foot out the door, he has gone from playing with politics to playing with history.
You could call him selfish, You could say he’s more focused on words on a (web)page than real results. You could call the Clean Power Plan too little too late. But this much is undeniable: Obama has set a presidential precedent for environmental action, for looking at the status quo and saying, “This is unsustainable.”
Obama turned the world’s eyes to Alaska, where the impact of climate change is visible in every drop of water, and legitimized contemporary climate science more than ever before.
Do you think Obama was a good or bad president regarding climate change and environmental policy? Share your thoughts!