The Green Lantern

Obama’s Environmental Report Card

Is America greener than it was four years ago?

Barack Obama visiting a solar power site in Nevada

Al Gore recently criticized Barack Obama —among many others—for the president’s record on climate change in the pages of Rolling Stone. Gore commends some of Obama’s early moves, like 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 President Reagan’s famous question to voters in 1980, are we greener than we were four years ago?

There’s no easy, one-word 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 we have complete climate change data, emissions of greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide and methane have declined. By the EPA’s measurements (PDF), the total potency of these gases was 6.1 percent lower in 2009 than in 2008. That’s a pretty enormous drop, considering the greenhouse-gas emissions had previously been increasing by 0.4 percent since 1990. Unfortunately, the change is unquestionably a temporary dip rather than the beginning of a downward 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 only needed to muster 41 votes to block the measure. As a result, Congress once again failed to systemically address carbon emissions. This summer, the Supreme Court reaffirmed (PDF) the EPA’s authority to regulate carbon dioxide emissions under the Clean Air Act. Still, the EPA (which, while operationally independent, technically falls under the executive branch) 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 (PDF), respectively, from 2008 to 2009. Some of that is likely due to his decision 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, regulations that finally extend to light trucks. The rules don’t begin to take effect until 2012, so there’s no immediate impact in greenhouse-gas emissions. But the regulations are ultimately expected to ease carbon emissions from cars by 21 percent by 2030, compared to what they would have been under the old rules. The president is also in negotiations to 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 for many of the current species living there in the next century. So it’s no longer good enough to protect the Yellowstone land area. Instead, federal agencies there 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 rules 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. President Bush fought the rules for eight years, attempting to issue weaker replacement rules 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, giving the Secretary of Agriculture the power to stop any new exploitation of federal lands. (Alaska recently sued (PDF) 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 (PDF) 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 ocean-going vessels, which pollute air as far inland as North Dakota. The president also finally set long-delayed standards for acceptable sulfur-dioxide and nitrogen-oxide levels in the air. And the administration is reconsidering (PDF) President Bush’s relatively lax rules on ozone standards. Most importantly to advocates, the president refused to weaken the Clean Air Act—which they say has save d 160,000 lives in 2010 alone—in the face of Republican pressure.

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