Assessing Obama’s Environmental Record

July 25, 2011 | Devon Swezey,


Breakthrough's Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus are part of a panel of experts convened by Yale Environment 360 to assess President Obama's record on the environment. Shellenberger and Nordhaus write that Obama erred in promoting a failed cap and trade agenda that was destined for defeat, rather than fight for a long-term sustained investment in advanced energy technologies that could make clean energy cheaper and foster economic renewal. Yet Obama has smartly reversed course, embracing a new energy innovation agenda:

During his State of the Union, the president famously asked, "Shall we surrender to our surroundings, or shall we make our peace with nature and begin to make reparations for the damage we have done to our air, to our land, and to our water?"

President Obama in 2010? No, President Nixon in 1970. Where the Republican president would go on to sign landmark environmental legislation into law, the Democratic one would watch cap-and-trade -- and the prospects of a global climate treaty -- go down in ignominious defeat. Some insist that had Obama's rhetoric been equally soaring, cap-and-trade would have passed. But Nixon was symptomatic of an era when Americans overwhelmingly favored environmental protection, even if it curbed economic growth. Obama's problem was with his policy agenda, not his rhetoric. The president's own agencies predicted cap-and-trade would increase unemployment. Had Obama instead sought a big, long-term investment in advanced energy technology -- like the kind candidate Obama promised in 2008 -- he might have succeeded.

Where Obama has succeeded is in rejecting the apocalyptic for the aspirational. While some of his signature stimulus program was wasted on low-wage efficiency jobs, other parts were invested in advanced energy technology and manufacturing. His 2011 State of the Union stressed the critical role innovation plays in driving growth. And he has remained steadfast in his support for nuclear power.

Where the environment was once a bipartisan issue, climate change has made it quintessentially partisan. While Obama's focus on cap-and-trade no doubt polarized the national energy debate, he has since self-corrected to focus on energy technology innovation. Whether or not anti-government Tea Partiers or apocalyptic greens can ever get behind that agenda, Obama has charted a course that holds the potential for Americans to embrace technology and innovation as the key to having both economic growth and environmental protection.


Also featured in the forum is the New York Times' Andy Revkin, whose insights on Obama and the global energy challenge are characteristically on the mark:

President Obama spent too much political energy backing the traditional environmental stance that human-driven global warming was a conventional pollution problem that could be cleaned up like sewage or smog through regulation. His vision of the "green jobs" benefits from stimulus spending -- focused on near-term, visible work like caulking windows -- was far too truncated, and he lost the chance to build a broader coalition around making a sustained energy quest America's new imperative. That approach could have gained more support and would more accurately reflect the momentous shift that would be required to supply energy to some 9 billion people by mid-century with the fewest regrets.

His greatest achievement has been maintaining the capacity to seek compromise, outside the glare of polarized public discourse, on tough issues like moving forward with new fuel economy standards for vehicles. It is that quality that, should he win a second term, provides the prospect for building a sustainable energy future and environment for the country and the planet.