Future Tense

Saved by the Drill

Obama wants to be remembered as a climate savior. He wasn’t.

Obama keystone.
President Obama, with Secretary of State John Kerry, announces his decision to reject the Keystone XL pipeline proposal on Nov. 6, 2015, in Washington.

Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images

In his final State of the Union address, President Obama spoke like a man leading the fight against climate change. He made it a centerpiece of his speech, touted his record of achievements, and mocked those who disbelieve the science behind it. “Sixty years ago, when the Russians beat us into space, we didn’t deny Sputnik was up there,” he quipped.

Obama clearly considers the nation’s progress on climate change and the environment an integral part of his legacy. That squares with the emphasis he placed on the issue eight years ago, when he was first running for president.

Examine his words and actions during the seven intervening years, however, and you’ll see that Obama has not been quite the environmental stalwart he’d have us believe. Rather, his strongest leadership has come at the beginning and end of his presidency, when he had the least to lose from it and the most to gain. On the environment, as in other realms, Obama’s defining trait as a leader has been his pragmatism. And while Obama can point to some genuine accomplishments, the forces that have shaped his environmental record—and rhetoric, for that matter—have been largely outside his control.

In 2008, then–Sen. Obama put climate change at the forefront of his presidential campaign. The centerpiece of his energy plan was a cap-and-trade system that he said would cut U.S. carbon dioxide emissions 80 percent below 1990 levels by 2050. The tough talk continued after he was elected. “Now is the time to confront this challenge once and for all,” he said in November 2008. “Delay is no longer an option. Denial is no longer an acceptable response.”

Climate moved to the back burner, however, when Obama chose health care as his first big policy battle. Eventually, as the Obamacare fight boiled over and the economy failed to gain steam, it disappeared from the stove entirely. By 2012, Obama had grown so weak on the issue that when Mitt Romney accused him in a debate of not being “Mr. Oil or Mr. Gas or Mr. Coal,” the president defended his fossil-fuel bona fides. Even after his re-election, Obama declined to push hard for climate legislation, noting that it “would involve making some tough political choices”—choices he was evidently unwilling to make. Greens were left disillusioned.

By his 2013 State of the Union address, Obama was beginning to quietly map out a new, more modest way forward. Even as he vaguely floated a “bipartisan, market-based solution” to climate change, which he knew would go nowhere in the Republican Congress, Obama promised to take action himself if the legislature wouldn’t. It was not an empty promise. In September 2013, the Environmental Protection Agency proposed carbon emission standards for new power plants, and Obama made them a priority in his 2014 State of the Union address. In August, he unveiled a 1,560-page “clean power plan” that included regulations on existing power plants, establishing compliance mechanisms that looked a lot like cap-and-trade.

Obama’s rhetoric on the climate over the course of his second term gradually regained the force and confidence of his 2008 stump speeches. “We have to act with more urgency,” he said in his 2014 State of the Union. Asked in a June 2014 interview whether he doesn’t sometimes want to “go off like a Roman candle” on those who deny that the climate is changing, he said, “Uh, yeah,” and laughed as though it were obvious. “Science is science,” he added. And it was in his 2015 State of the Union speech that the president referred to climate change as the greatest threat to future generations.

On Tuesday, in his final State of the Union address, Obama talked climate more than he ever has—and with more conviction. He began by laying out “four big questions that we as a country have to answer,” the second of which was the challenge of confronting climate change:

Look, if anybody still wants to dispute the science around climate change, have at it. You’ll be pretty lonely, because you’ll be debating our military, most of America’s business leaders, the majority of the American people, almost the entire scientific community, and 200 nations around the world who agree it’s a problem and intend to solve it.

Obama went on to tout the country’s investments in clean energy, which have resulted in a boom in solar and wind power, with the solar industry now employing more Americans than coal does. He also boasted that the country has “cut our imports of foreign oil by nearly 60 percent.” He paused, then added with a smile: “Gas under 2 bucks a gallon ain’t bad either.”

Obama’s tone was triumphant, his rhetoric that of a president burnishing his legacy. Certainly he deserves some credit for steering the country toward a cleaner future and for helping to negotiate the landmark Paris agreement in December. He has done, you might fairly say, as much as could reasonably be expected of a Democratic president facing an intransigent Congress in an era of deep economic anxiety.

As much, yes—but not more. Sure, Obama was out front on climate in 2008, when the nation was looking for some fresh air after two terms of George W. Bush. But it was relatively easy then, because his Republican opponent, John McCain, basically agreed with him. Once in office, Obama did push for a climate bill, but he pushed harder on health care, which was fine. It’s not entirely his fault that the Republican response to his Obamacare victory was to swerve hard to the right, blocking and demonizing the rest of his agenda, including anything climate-related.

Still, it’s telling that the president clammed up about the climate after that. He clearly viewed it as a losing issue for him and his party, and he cared more about not losing than he did about beating the drum on that greatest of threats to future generations. An environmental leader would not have pointed to his record of opening public lands for oil drilling when Romney charged that he had not been Mr. Oil, Mr. Gas, or Mr. Coal. He would have said, “You’re right. I’m not Mr. Oil, Mr. Gas, or Mr. Coal, and here’s why.” Nor would an environmental leader have dithered for years on the Keystone pipeline, evading attempts to pin him to one side or the other of the most polarizing energy project of his presidency.

Over the past few years, the economy has continued to improve, the science has become ever clearer, the world keeps getting hotter, and even the “deniers” have begun to admit that the climate is changing. Obama, meanwhile, has zero elections left to win and one presidential legacy to mold. In short, the political calculus has once again made it opportune for him to play a leading role in the climate fight. So he is.

Make no mistake, as Obama would say: The United States has made significant progress on the climate over the course of his two terms. His sustained green jobs push has borne fruit, and his clean energy investments have helped to spur breakthroughs, like Tesla’s wildly successful electric cars. New efficiency standards and EPA regulations have also made a difference. In the end, even kicking the Keystone can down the road turned out to be exactly the right move. By the time he finally rejected it in November, collapsing oil prices had undercut the whole point of the project.

But surprisingly few of the environmental achievements he’s now touting are the result of his own efforts. U.S. emissions have plummeted—oil prices, too—as a direct result of a technological innovation that went unmentioned in Tuesday’s address and that was not a part of any Obama-led policy push. That would be fracking, and the domestic drilling boom it has made possible. The combination of cheap natural gas and increased domestic oil production has done more to cut U.S. dependency on foreign oil than anything the Oval Office has done. Depending on how you feel about fracking and its effects, you can credit or blame Obama for not standing in the way—but no one should pretend it’s his doing. He was, in short, saved by the drill.

None of this is to imply that Obama is an enemy of the environment or even a cynical opportunist. On the contrary, all signs indicate that he does care deeply about the climate he’ll leave us when he leaves office, and always has. He did what he felt he could, when he could, without sacrificing too much political capital or damaging his re-election chances. Which is why Obama is not an environmental leader but a political one. And he’s never needed a climatologist to tell him which way the wind is blowing. 

This article is part of Future Tense, a collaboration among Arizona State UniversityNew America, and Slate. Future Tense explores the ways emerging technologies affect society, policy, and culture. To read more, visit the Future Tense blog and the Future Tense home page. You can also follow us on Twitter.