To date, the U.S. Congress has submitted zero green legislation to President Obama for his signature but he has not been idle on the environmental front.
Beginning with President John Adams, each U.S. president inherits the work of his or her predecessors, the legislation signed into law, proclamations made, executive orders issued, memorandums written, and the state of the union.
In 2009, Barack Obama became the 44th President of the United States taking the helm of the country during the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression.
Although tackling environmental issues was probably on the new President’s mind, it was not his top priority and it was not even on the U.S. Congress’ to-do list
However, President Obama has made use of the legacy provided by former Presidents and Congresses and exercised his powers as the Chief Executive of the United States to address environmental issues and climate change.
We will look at a few examples in this post.
Protecting and Preserving Public Lands and Waters
The U.S. Congress may set aside land and water for protection and conservation for the good of the public and future generations and so may the President.
The Antiquities Act of 1906 includes a provision authorizing the President to protect and preserve landmarks, structures, and objects of historic or scientific interest on federal land by declaring them national monuments. Ever since President Theodore Roosevelt signed the bill into law, most Presidents, including Roosevelt, have exercised their authority to declare national monuments via presidential proclamation.
To date, President Obama has designated 16 national monuments including Rio Grande del Norte, San Juan Islands, Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks, San Gabriel Mountains, and Browns Canyon as well as Fort Monroe and the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad.
Greening the United States Federal Government
Although not specifically called out in the U.S. Constitution, every President including George Washington has utilized proclamations and executive orders to direct and influence the business of the U.S. government.
The federal government is the largest employer, landholder, and building occupier, and operates the largest land, air, and water vehicle fleet in the United States. This places the U.S. government in a unique position and provides federal agencies with an opportunity to lead by example and address climate change on a wide scale.
Apparently, President Obama believes this too. He has issued environmental and climate change related executive orders and memorandums throughout his presidency.
For instance, President Obama issued Executive Order 13514 – Federal Leadership in Environmental, Energy, and Economic Performance on October 5, 2009, directing all federal agencies to lead the country towards a clean energy economy and reduce greenhouse gases by greening their own operations.
This means increasing energy efficiency, using renewable energy, reducing fossil fuel use, conserving water, eliminating waste, recycling, purchasing environmentally preferable materials, products, and services; operating energy efficient vehicles and high-performance sustainable buildings.
For the first time ever, federal agencies are now required to track their greenhouse gas emissions, establish reduction targets, and report on their progress.
Greening the federal government means the White House too. Installing solar panels on the White House residence roof in 2013 set a good example.
National Dialogue on Climate Change
Other U.S. presidents have talked about climate change related topics like renewable energy or resilient infrastructure, but President Obama made climate change part of our national dialogue. It began with one sentence during his first inaugural address.
“We will harness the sun and the winds and the soil to fuel our cars and run our factories.”
Now, six years later, the President regularly discusses climate change alongside the economy, health care, education, social security, and foreign policy. Below is an excerpt from his State of the Union speech on January 20, 2015.
“Now, I’ve heard some folks try to dodge the evidence by saying they’re not scientists, that we don’t have enough information to act. Well, I’m not a scientist, either. But you know what, I know a lot of really good scientists at NASA and at NOAA and at our major universities. And the best scientists in the world are all telling us that our activities are changing the climate, and if we don’t act forcefully, we’ll continue to see rising oceans, longer, hotter heat waves, dangerous droughts and floods, and massive disruptions that can trigger greater migration and conflict and hunger around the globe. The Pentagon says that climate change poses immediate risks to our national security. We should act like it.
And that’s why, over the past 6 years, we’ve done more than ever to combat climate change, from the way we produce energy to the way we use it. That’s why we’ve set aside more public lands and waters than any administration in history. And that’s why I will not let this Congress endanger the health of our children by turning back the clock on our efforts. I am determined to make sure that American leadership drives international action.
In Beijing, we made a historic announcement: The United States will double the pace at which we cut carbon pollution. And China committed, for the first time, to limiting their emissions. And because the world’s two largest economies came together, other nations are now stepping up and offering hope that this year the world will finally reach an agreement to protect the one planet we’ve got.”
Climate change is out in the open now.
With two years remaining in his final term, President Obama and Congress may yet come together and enact green legislation to protect the planet for our children and future generations. Regardless, I believe President Obama will continue to exercise his executive authority and will move the ball forward on climate change.
- Earth Day 2013 – Mr. President, Go Green
- Earth Day 2014 – Mr. President, Go Green
- Green Legislation – Lincoln Administration
- Green Legislation – Nixon Administration
- Green Legislation – Roosevelt Administrations
- Greening the U.S. Federal Government – Executive Order 13514
- President Obama’s Speech and Climate Action Plan
- Solar Power at the White House
- National Geographic – President Names Three New U.S. National Monuments, by Brian Clark Howard, 2015-02-19
- New York Magazine – Obama Might Actually Be the Environmental President, by Jonathan Chait, 2013-05-05
- The Huffington Post – Congress Hasn’t Passed A Major Environmental Law In 1,894 Days, by Kate Sheppard, 2014-04-23
- The New York Times – Obama Builds Environmental Legacy With 1970 Law, by Coral Davenport, 2014-11-26
- The White House – Energy, Climate Change, Our Environment
- The White House Blog – President Obama Establishes Five New National Monuments, by Megan Slack, 2013-03-25