Obama is repping his environmental legacy, and we should all savor it

Obama’s 10-day trip, his last one to Asia as president, includes three stops aimed at cementing his environmental record.

The first stop on the trip was Lake Tahoe, California, where on Wednesday Obama drew attention to the region’s plights in the face of devastating drought and heat—but also the important steps forward that have been made.

“The challenges of conservation and combating climate change are connected. They are linked,” Obama said.

As Kristen Donnelly of NBC News pointed out, Obama’s trip to Asia is combining “two crucial tenets of his environmental legacy,” the climate change element and the conservation element.

Paul Sutter, a history professor at the University of Colorado at Boulder with a focus on the environment, said that it’s not at all uncommon for presidents to use their last months in office by burnishing their environmental legacies.

Sutter took a little bit of issue with Obama’s conflation or conservation and climate change, saying that “some of the connections that he’s making between traditional conservation and climate change mitigation seem a little attenuated to me—setting aside national monuments would not be at the top of most people’s lists of the most effective ways to battle global warming.”

“But it may be good politics,” he continued. “And in some cases, if doing so keeps fossil fuels in the ground, the connection is stronger.”

Of Obama’s overall environmental legacy, Sutter said he considers it to be “strong if not spectacular.”

“But it is looking better right now than it was a year ago. I think his decision on the Keystone XL Pipeline demonstrated a level of commitment and courage on the climate issue that we had not seen to that point.”

He said some of this delay was probably due to the focus and energy that the economic recovery demanded in Obama’s first term. And of course, congressional inaction hasn’t helped.

“It is certainly true that President Obama’s environmental record would have been stronger if he had had a Congress to work with that was even a little bit interested in compromise and legislative accomplishment,” said Sutter.

Obama also used the California layover to announce some new initiatives for the long-plagued Salton Sea, on the southern end of interior California. The man-made body of water, which is the result of decades of agricultural runoff, is also California’s largest lake.

From there, Obama heads to Hawaii and the site of his newly designated expansion of the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument, which is now the largest protected area in the world. From the Midway Atoll, located within the expanded reserve, on Thursday Obama will highlight the ways climate change is harming the oceans and the importance of safeguarding public lands and water for future generations.

After this stop in his former home state, Obama will head to China for the G20 summit. The Paris Climate Agreement, finalized last December, will be a key topic of conversation, and big announcements from the United States and China are anticipated—including the likely joint announcement that both countries are formally joining the Paris Agreement. Getting the G20 parties to commit to ratifying the Paris Agreement would be a major culminating achievement for Obama, who’s made international climate policy a central element of his environmental legacy.

G20 countries represent roughly 80% of global GDP and roughly 80% of greenhouse gas emissions. In order for the agreement to enter into force, 55 countries accounting for 55% of global emissions need to sign on. China and the U.S together represent just under 40% of global emissions. The agreement aims to curtail greenhouse gas emissions enough to keep global temperature rise significantly below 2 degrees Celsius.

Obama will finish the trip in Laos, where he hopes to mend relations after decades of adversarial history.

Michael B. Gerrard, the director of the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law at Columbia University, praised Obama’s environmental efforts as president, saying he’s done a “phenomenal amount within the constraints of a Congress that is more hostile to environmental regulation than any we have ever seen.”

“He has had to rely on statutes that are 25 to 45 years old, and in order to address today’s problems he has had to test the outer limits of those statutes,” he said. “Most of the time he succeeded.”

Gerrard said that while the Paris Agreement “does not take us nearly far enough,” it represents an essential next step in the process of addressing climate change at the global level.

He especially noted the achievement of bringing the two largest emitters, the U.S. and China, together for a common objective.

In an op-ed this week, Steven Cohen, executive director of Columbia University’s Earth Institute, reflected on the increased need for conservation in this day and age, and how Obama has tried to address the issue by exercising his power to designate lands under the Antiquities Act:

Barack Obama’s use of this authority will ensure that many lands we have left undeveloped will stay that way. This is particularly important as we become an increasingly urban society. Over the next half-century we can expect that a lower and lower proportion of our society will live in rural areas. This means that building the ethos—or value—of protecting the planet, so important to our survival, will take greater effort. Vacations and school trips will be most people’s closest exposure to the natural world. From a very practical standpoint we need more of these spaces to ensure that the ones we have are not overrun by the growing demand to visit them.

Obama’s push for environmental change has been piecemeal—a regulation here, a grant there, a few newly preserved areas a year. When added up, these updates to fuel standards, clean energy technology, power plant regulations, extreme weather adaptation methods, and many other aspects of society with an environmental component represent a great step forward since 2008.

Credit is also due to the environmental organizations and movements that pushed Obama forward when the going got especially contentious with issues like the Keystone XL or the Clean Power Plan. These groups continue to push Obama to do more, especially when it comes to domestic oil and gas production.

For a longer list of Obama’s accomplishments, see the White House’s record of Obama’s commitment to environmental protection and reversing climate change.

It will be up to the next president to continue to advance (or not to continue) a progressive environmental agenda.

For the climate change deniers and those with an axe to grind over environmental policies and regulations, they will probably point out that Obama’s flights on this trip add carbon dioxide emissions to the atmosphere. That’s a true example of myopic thinking.