The Obama Presidency will be remembered as one of the most competent and by far the greenest presidency in American history. His list of achievements will ensure that his climate legacy will be remembered, even if some do not yet fully appreciate the gift he has given to future generations. We who fight for the Earth and its inhabitants owe President Obama an eternal debt of gratitude.
Obama may be remembered for reversing the economic free-fall he inherited or saving the US auto industry. Under his leadership, the number of jobs steadily increased and he left office with one of the lowest unemployment rates in US history. When he took the oath of office in 2009 unemployment was just below 10 percent by the time he left it was halved to under 5 percent. However, the legacy that he leaves for future generations is his record of climate action. In all likelihood, Trump will be remembered for his denial that condemned future generations to a climate catastrophe.
For these and other reasons, people came together in Washington D.C. on January 19th, to thank the president for his service. They also came to protest Trump. Millions are committed to preserving Obama’s stellar legacy. They have pledged to resist the dystopia of the Trump administration. If there is a silver lining to the Trump presidency it is that it has brought a divided Democratic party together. It has also encouraged concerned citizens to get more involved in the political process.
The arc of the Obama presidency
A GQ article early last year said that Obama will go down as one of the greatest presidents of all time. In Trump’s alternate universe he is justified to villainize Obama. In his inauguration speech, Trump said he will end the “carnage”. What carnage?
At the end of his presidency, a total of 57 percent of Americans said that economic conditions are good, compared with 13 percent in January 2009 when Obama took office. Obama’s favorability rating stands at 63 percent, among the best for recent presidents. According to a CNN poll, almost two-thirds (65 percent) of Americans said that the Obama presidency was a success. Meanwhile, Trump has one of the lowest approval ratings at just over 40 percent (Obama’s approval rating when he took office was 85 percent). The only carnage is the one that the Trump administration augurs.
As Obama said in his State of the Union Address, “after years of record corporate profits, working families won’t get more opportunity or bigger paychecks by letting big banks or big oil or hedge funds make their own rules at the expense of everyone else.”
In the final months of his term, Obama described climate change as “terrifying” and the greatest threat we face and he added that no other country is better equipped to lead the world on this issue than the United States. He also said that he sees his climate efforts as the key legacy issue of his presidency.
In July Obama introduced the Clean Energy for All initiative to ensure that every American household has access to clean and affordable energy. The goal is to bring 1 gigawatt (GW) of solar to low- and moderate-income families by 2020. Obama also protected dozens of places both on water and on land, this included one in Hawaii that is now the largest protected place in the world. On December 28, the President protected an additional 1.5 million acres of land for a total of more than 550 million acres (click here to access the full list). His efforts to protect and preserve our oceans (he has protected more waters than any of his predecessors)) drove the Atlantic to describe Obama as, “The Ocean President”.
Before leaving office Obama threw a second $500 million into the Green Climate Fund. However there is still $2 billion remaining and Trump has promised to do what he does best, namely stiff those that he owes money to.
Trump will undermine Obama’s legacy
Obama will be remembered as a climate leader and derivatives of his policies will return in earnest once sensible leadership returns to the white house, however, in the interim tremendous damage will be done to Obama’s legacy and the planet.
We can expect Trump to lift restrictions and allow fossil fuel extraction to take place on public lands. However, this will be countered by ongoing litigation and protest. Market realities may also impede Trumps push to expand extraction. Obama has tried to erect roadblocks to limit Trump’s fossil fuel expansion plans. He has all but shut down offshore drilling for the next few years. Although Trump could rewrite the plan this would take some time. Once again such an expansion would be curtailed by market forces.
Other Obama policies are much more vulnerable. For example, Trump could roll back Obama’s rules on methane in the oil and gas industry. Obama’s signature legacy action is the Clean Power Plan and Trump will likely be able to kill it.
Optimism from the architects
Former Vice President Joe Biden has a more optimistic take on Obama (and his) legacy. Biden was quoted in The Independent as saying Trump will not be able to undo Obama’s environmental progress. Biden reassured people by suggesting that the Obama administration’s green policies will survive President Trump.
“There is no way of turning back the tide that has begun to roll,” Mr Biden said at a Canadian environmental summit. He explained that when it comes to things like renewable energy businesses are investing because it saves them money. Biden indicated that he is absolutely confident the United States will continue making progress on this path to a low-carbon future because they are market driven and not dependent on government initiatives.
“One of the things the President and I are proudest of accomplishing over the last eight years,” Biden said, “is debunking the myth that America can’t grow our economy and bring down emissions at the same time.”
The contrast between Potus 44 and 45 is obvious. They are opposites in almost every way imaginable. Just days before Trump took the oath of office, he was tweeting insults while Obama was publishing an article about clean energy in a scientific journal. In this piece the president said there are four reasons why the trend toward clean energy is irreversible:
1. Economic growth and cutting carbon emissions go hand in hand. Any economic strategy that doesnt take climate change into account will result in fewer jobs and less economic growth in the long term.
2. Businesses know that reducing emissions can boost bottom lines and make shareholders happy. And efficiency boosts employment too: About 2.2 million Americans now have jobs related to energy efficiency, compared to about 1.1 million with fossil fuel jobs.
3. The market is already moving toward cleaner electricity. Natural gas is replacing coal, and renewable energy costs are falling dramatically trends that will continue (even with a coal-loving president).
4. Theres global momentum for climate action. In 2015 in Paris, nearly 200 nations agreed to bring down carbon emissions.
The End of an Era
With the end of the Obama administration and the dawn of the Trump administration, we are marking a radical shift that represents the end of an era. Some think of it as the death of neoliberalism. Others like
Peter Leyden, founder & CEO of media company Reinvent, think the big change in strategic direction is a function of moving too fast. He quoted John Maynard Keynes, who in a book titled Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren (1930) spoke of, “growing-pains of over-rapid changes, from the painfulness of readjustment between one economic period and another…”
Rather than look at Brexit and Trump as being indicative of a new global dystopia, he believes we are headed towards a new 21st-century civilization. “Trump Begins The End.” Leyden explained. Brexit and Trump, “are not driving the change, they are reacting to the change. They are not showing the way forward, they are making desperate attempts to cling to the past, a past that is gone forever.”
The 21st-century civilization Leyden envisages is rather optimistic in that it is defined by three characteristics, smart interconnectivity through digital technologies, globalized and sustainable. Speaking about the 1930’s Leyden said, “that era’s right wing took those fears and drove a good chunk of the world into fascism and a world war. Today Trump is heading down that path — but he won’t get far. I think Trump ultimately is going to do America and the world a service by becoming the vehicle that will finally take down right-wing conservative politics for a generation or two.”
Leyden sees leadership coming from California and he thinks that innovation will go into “hyper-drive”. He also has a message for those who supported Obama, “stay hopeful. I truly believe that the politics and policies that President Obama helped usher in will prevail in the end. In the big-picture view of history, the brief Trump reign will be seen as a difficult but necessary step in the massive transition between one economic period to another. Obama’s decade of work will be seen, in the decades to come, as the truly enduring foundation. He laid the groundwork for what will certainly become the all-digital, fully global, sustainable civilization of the 21st century.”
Obama also had a hopeful message in his farewell speech. He told the Times that he fully intends to be an active supporter of climate action. He even offered the lofty hope that he may be able to get through to science-resistant Republicans.