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This article appeared in the January 18 Inaugural Edition of Streetwise Magazine, one of the largest “street papers” in the U.S.  Streetwise provides Chicagoans facing homelessness with a combination of supportive social services, workforce development resources, and immediate access to gainful employment.

What is Obama’s Climate Legacy, and What’s at Risk?

By Pam Richart, Co-Director, Eco-Justice Collaborative
January 16, 2017

“As the leader of the world’s largest economy and the second largest (greenhouse gas) emitter … the United States of America not only recognizes our role in creating this problem, we embrace our responsibility to do something about it.” – Barack Obama, 2015 Paris Climate Summit

Forward on Climate

Climate activists have largely been praising President Obama lately, but his Arctic drilling decision could bring back the protesters. Credit: Forward on Climate Rally via Flickr.

Records for temperature increases, intense storms and floods, wildfires, and drought once again were set in 2016. Although global carbon emissions rose to an alarmingly high 404 ppm during Barack Obama’s eight years in office, the President cut planet-heating emissions across much of the U.S. economy, from cars to coal plants. Today, the U.S. leads the world in reducing carbon emissions through initiatives such as:

  • Groundbreaking fuel efficiency standards that will nearly double the fuel economy of cars and light trucks by 2025. These will cut carbon dioxide pollution by over 6 billion metric tons, which is what the Amazon rainforest absorbs in three years.
  • Advancements in clean energy that have tripled wind power and increased solar power 30 times, creating new jobs and displacing carbon pollution from coal plants. By January 2015, the solar industry was creating jobs nearly five times faster than the rest of S. economy.
  • Rejecting Keystone XL Pipeline, which would have shipped tar sands crude to refineries on the Gulf Coast where it could easily be exported, thereby increasing global carbon pollution. The President is the first world leader to stop a large-scale project because of its effect on climate.
  • Playing a key role in in bringing 190 countries together at the Paris Climate Summit to adopt the most ambitious climate change agreement in history. For the first time, the world as a whole has agreed to limit warming to no more than 2°C above pre-industrial levels by the end of this century, signaling a turning point to a low-carbon economy.
  • Creating the Clean Power Plan, a centerpiece of the President’s efforts to slash greenhouse-gas emissions. The Plan establishes the first-ever national carbon pollution standards for coal-fired power plants – the largest source of carbon pollution in our country. But electric utilities, labor unions, business groups, and coal miners have joined a 27-state coalition that is challenging the Plan. The good news is that the clean energy economy is growing so fast it is displacing coal – with, or without this plan.

A Legacy Mixed with Fossil Fuels

While President Obama was taking critical steps towards curbing greenhouse gas emissions both at home and abroad, he also was supporting fossil fuels. Even though the U.S. is burning less coal, during his administration coal exports climbed to record highs; domestic oil production increased; and the President financed three times as many foreign oil projects as President George W. Bush.

“Under my administration, America is producing more oil than at any time in the last eight years. We’ve opened up new areas for exploration. We’ve quadrupled the number of operating rigs to a record high. We’ve added enough new oil and gas pipeline to circle the Earth and then some.” – Barack Obama, April 12, 2012


And yet, just days before the end of his presidency, Obama blocked oil and gas drilling in some parts of the Atlantic Ocean and almost the entire American-controlled region of the Arctic Ocean. keeping oil and gas in this region in the ground.

The criticism that President Obama should have moved more aggressively on climate rather than support an “all of the above” energy policy is legitimate. But it remains clear that Barack Obama made significant strides toward cutting harmful greenhouse gas emissions through his carbon-cutting initiatives, while also helping to lay the framework and foundation for a global effort that combats climate change.


President Obama at the COP 21 climate summit in Paris (Photo: Twitter, White House)

The torch now has been passed to a new administration. Donald J. Trump’s cabinet picks and his promise to bring back coal jobs are strong signals that he will be prioritizing high-carbon fossil fuels. We’ll have to wait and see what happens next.

Eco-Justice Collaborative is a non-profit that uses education, advocacy and action to address urgent environmental issues, while integrating their work with ongoing struggles for social and economic justice.

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