State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School


President Obama Continues to Build His Environmental Legacy

As President Obama nears the end of his second term, he continues to use his executive authority to ensure that his sustainability priorities are translated into public policy. His use of the Clean Air Act to regulate greenhouse gas emissions has been far from easy, but it is clear that a national policy to reduce global warming is slowly grinding into place. The president’s action last week to expand the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument in Hawaii is the latest example of his effort to build a lasting environmental legacy. Last week, he created the world’s largest marine reserve, and as New York Times reporter Julie Hirschfeld Davis reported last week, this is not an isolated policy initiative:

“Using the 100-year-old Antiquities Act, which was signed by President Theodore Roosevelt, Mr. Obama has protected hundreds of millions of acres in places of ecological, historical or cultural significance — more than any other American president. In 2014, he also greatly expanded the Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument, south and west of Hawaii. But he has often drawn criticism from Republicans for acting unilaterally.”

Teddy Roosevelt’s designation of national monuments is why we still can visit the Grand Canyon, and Barack Obama’s use of this authority will ensure that many lands we have left undeveloped will stay that way. This is particularly important as we become an increasingly urban society. Over the next half-century we can expect that a lower and lower proportion of our society will live in rural areas. This means that building the ethos—or value—of protecting the planet, so important to our survival, will take greater effort. Vacations and school trips will be most people’s closest exposure to the natural world. From a very practical standpoint we need more of these spaces to ensure that the ones we have are not overrun by the growing demand to visit them.

The lands and marine sanctuaries are not meant to prohibit us from fishing, hunting, hiking and gazing in these spaces, but to regulate use to ensure that natural treasures are conserved. The politics involved can be complicated. Earlier last week, the president designated 87,500 acres of woods in Maine as the Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument. Richard Perez Pena of the NY Times reported on the political reaction to this move and observed that:

“In a struggling region that has long relied on shrinking timber-related businesses, many residents fear that a national monument could eventually mean new air pollution controls on wood and paper mills in the surrounding areas. “It’s sad that rich, out-of-state liberals can team up with President Obama to force a national monument on rural Mainers who do not want it,” Gov. Paul LePage, a Republican, said in a statement. Earlier this year, the state Legislature passed and Mr. LePage signed a bill opposing the federal takeover.”

While the governor’s reaction to conserving these lands could be seen as typical conservative reaction to any executive actions taken by President Obama, vocal opposition has long been typical of monument and park politics. People prefer local control of their own lands. Local economic interests are particularly active in the politics of land use. Teddy Roosevelt faced fierce and constant opposition to his monument designations. TR seemed to enjoy this form of political combat, because he was convinced that his view was correct. The importance and value of our national parks and monuments over time has proven that his vision of conservation was ahead of its time. His aggressive steps to preserve nature enhance Roosevelt’s legacy as a great president.

This will be true of President Obama as well, because the need for conservation has grown. The national political clout of those seeking to exploit and extract finite resources from these lands and waters has diminished and will continue to decline. This is part of the transition from the old labor-intensive industrial economy to the post-industrial world of the brain-based economy. Automation will continue to replace labor doing routine tasks. Resource extraction, agriculture and other material parts of our economy generate a lower and lower portion of our GDP. It is not only regulation and globalization that is driving these businesses out of their traditional locations, but the fact that there is more profit in software than hardware. Google is more lucrative than HP. This means that the traditional notion that we must trade off economic growth to ensure environmental quality will have decreasing relevance. Politicians may willfully disagree with the idea that environmental protection enhances economic growth, but that concept is fundamental to the growing field of sustainability management. The political power of the new economy is growing while the political power of extraction industries and other parts of the old economy are shrinking.

I think we should look at conservation as an investment in the future, rather than as the ideological choice of rich, out-of-state liberals. Future presidents will continue to look for opportunities to designate more areas for preservation. Preserving these spaces is important physically, but it is also important to our civic culture and national sense of purpose. Imagine America without the Muir Woods, the Grand Canyon, and countless other protected areas.

In an increasingly urbanized world it will take leadership and political activism to reinforce the message that conservation is important, and the natural environment is a treasure to protect, rather than a resource to use up and toss away. We will need to protect our land, air and water to meet our needs for food, clothing, water and shelter. While the national parks and monuments contribute to the health of the biosphere, their impact on major population centers can be indirect and difficult for some to see.

President Obama has also used his executive authority aggressively to update our aging structure of environmental law and regulation. America’s environmental regulations are complex and their development and implementation has taken decades to put in place. But once environmental rules are hard-wired into our legal structure they become influential incentives to sustainable corporate, governmental and private behavior.

Finally, the president has used the purchasing power of the federal government itself to build the green economy and encourage changes in how our massive federal organizations operate. The military has been aggressive in pushing energy efficiency and renewable energy. It has also spent massive amounts of money to clean up its own toxic waste sites.

While early in his first term the president failed to secure climate change legislation, he has managed to begin the process of greenhouse gas regulation through executive action. There are limits to how much a president can do without a congress willing to legislate. Barack Obama produced his environmental legacy through the creative and determined use of his executive authority. Let’s hope his successor is able to build on that legacy with new law that reflects the 21st century’s technologies, and the global economy that is now a fact of life.

Banner featuring a collage of extreme heat images.

Recent record-breaking heat waves have affected communities across the world. The Extreme Heat Workshop will bring together researchers and practitioners to advance the state of knowledge, identify community needs, and develop a framework for evaluating risks with a focus on climate justice. Register by June 15

Notify of

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments