Obama’s record on the environment


Green Lantern 8/2/11 (Michael Sloan/For the Washington Post)

Al Gore recently criticized Barack Obama — among many others — for the federal government’s record on climate change. In the pages of Rolling Stone, Gore commends some of Obama’s early moves, such as making the case that environmental security is inseparable from national security, but he concludes that the president has “failed to use the bully pulpit to make the case for bold action on climate change.”

Gore’s criticism challenges Obama’s environmental record heading into campaign season. To slightly tweak Ronald Reagan’s famous question to voters in 1980, are we greener than we were four years ago?

There’s no easy answer, but a glance at three major areas of environmental concern — climate change, air pollution and protection of wild spaces — can provide some perspective.

Climate change

The good news is that, for the most recent year for which we have complete data, emissions of greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide and methane declined. By the EPA’s measurements, the total was 6.1 percent lower in 2009 than in 2008. That’s an enormous drop, considering that greenhouse-gas emissions had been increasing by 0.4 percent annually since 1990.

Unfortunately, the change is unquestionably a temporary dip rather than the beginning of a trend. The recession decreased energy demand, and a spike in coal prices drove electric utilities to natural gas, which emits less carbon per kilowatt-hour. These changes have little to do with the president’s environmental initiatives.

As Gore argues, the president’s record on climate change includes a smattering of substantial but not game-changing successes, plus one major failure. After the House passed cap-and-trade legislation, the president abandoned it as a long shot in the Senate, where opponents needed to muster only 41 votes to block the measure. As a result, Congress once again failed to systemically address carbon emissions. In June, the Supreme Court reaffirmed the EPA’s authority to regulate carbon dioxide emissions under the Clean Air Act. Still, the EPA (an executive branch agency, though technically independent) has delayed regulating emissions for years, perhaps waiting for Congress to make a move.

The president has bragging rights to some piecemeal climate-change initiatives. The nation’s wind- and solar-power capacity increased 39 and 52 percent, respectively, from 2008 to 2009. Some of that is probably due to his decisions to extend tax credits and create a new grant program for residential renewable energy as part of the stimulus package. The administration also approved the nation’s first offshore wind farm.

The president raised fuel-economy standards for cars, and these regulations finally extend to light trucks. The rules don’t begin to take effect until 2012, so there’s no immediate impact on greenhouse-gas emissions. But the standards are expected to ease carbon emissions from cars by 21 percent by 2030 compared with what they would have been under the old rules. An agreement reached last week will create even stricter requirements by 2025.

Wild-space management

While there have been disappointments in managing the nation’s open spaces, President Obama’s record here has been stronger than on climate change. His efforts also show the importance of small decisions that went largely unnoticed in the shuffle of budget negotiations, Supreme Court nominations and political name-calling.

Obama has advised all federal agencies with a role in land stewardship to consider the potentially catastrophic effects of climate change when developing their management plans. (This is a meaningful change from his predecessor, whose subordinates never fully accepted the reality of a warming globe.)

There are indications, for example, that Yellowstone National Park won’t be a suitable environment in the next century or so for many of the species now living there. So it’s no longer good enough to protect the Yellowstone land area. Instead, federal agencies are working to maintain corridors that will enable threatened species to migrate as the conditions change. This kind of planning could mean the difference between survival and extinction for scores of species.

Conservationists have also applauded Obama’s support for regulating roadless areas under federal management. At the end of his tenure as president, Bill Clinton issued sweeping rules prohibiting logging, mining and road-building in 58.5 million acres of national forest. Former president George W. Bush fought the rules for eight years, attempting to weaken them and offer exemptions for various areas. Conservation groups battled Bush’s changes in court until the end of his administration, when Obama jumped into the fray, authorizing the secretary of agriculture to stop any new exploitation of federal lands. (Alaska recently sued to rescind Obama’s temporary order.)

Air quality

Happy news here. By virtually any measure, America’s air is cleaner today than it was four years ago. The American Lung Association’s analysis of air pollution shows that all 25 of the cities with the worst ozone pollution in the last report have improved, and 23 of the 25 worst particulate-matter cities are getting cleaner.

Obama can take some serious credit in this arena, according to air quality experts. He has moved to regulate the emissions of oceangoing vessels, which pollute air as far inland as North Dakota. The president also set long-delayed standards for sulfur-dioxide and nitrogen-oxide levels in the air. And the administration is reconsidering President Bush’s relatively lax rules on ozone standards. Most important to advocates of the Clean Air Act, the president refused to weaken that law — which they say saved 160,000 lives in 2010 alone — despite Republican pressure.

There you have it. A whirlwind, incomplete tour of messy environmental political battles. At the risk of oversimplification, the Lantern would say we’re greener than we were before Obama took office in most aspects except climate-change legislation. Unfortunately, that will probably turn out to be, by far, the most important of the issues.

The Green Lantern is produced by the online magazine Slate and can be read at www.slate.com.

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