Earth Day at 40: Can Obama Outperform Nixon?

By and / 4.22.2010

Today is the 40th anniversary of Earth Day, the first of which took place in 1970 at the beginning of the golden age of environmental legislation in the United States. It’s a telling statement that in the past four decades, the most successful environmental record belongs to Richard Nixon.

Our most disgraced president looks rather hippie-esque when you look at the achievements that passed during his administration: the National Environmental Policy Act, the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, the Marine Mammals Act, the Safe Drinking Water Act and the Endangered Species Act all became law under his watch, and he established the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) soon after Earth Day One.

Since then, environmental policy has often meandered from favored conservative punching bag to a second-tier issue. President Barack Obama has a chance to cement a similar environmental legacy by acting on climate, energy and natural conservation legislation. How has he done so far? In his first term in office, President Obama has achieved notable environmental progress by simply not being President Bush.

Following arguably the most anti-environment administration since the 1970s, almost anyone would shine in comparison. Like on many other fronts, Obama does not lack for ambition. He included energy as one of his three top priorities during the 2008 campaign and has signaled that it will be getting his attention very soon. That being said, the Obama administration has not yet established an impressive or even cohesive environmental record. Many of the president’s actions have been piecemeal, either addressing specific policy problems or cleaning some of the messes left over from the previous eight years. He has yet to achieve a stout victory on the environmental front, but it has only been one year. He still has time to work.

Below is a list of the top five environmental actions that occurred in the first year of the Obama administration – and five other items on which he needs to do more work:

The Accomplishments

  • Endangerment finding: This finding, which said that carbon dioxide is a pollutant that endangers human health, gave the EPA authority to regulate it under the Clean Air Act. This is the most significant step toward reducing greenhouse gas emissions the U.S. government has yet taken.
  • CAFE standards: The EPA increased average fuel economy standards for cars and trucks in the U.S. fleet to be 35 mpg in 2020, the first increase since 1990. The regulation is estimated to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 960 million metric tons by 2030.
  • The stimulus package: The American Reinvestment and Recovery Act channeled $8 billion toward energy projects, mainly focusing on renewables and energy efficiency. It included another $6 billion in water and wastewater projects.
  • Copenhagen: Simply put, international climate negotiations would have collapsed were it not for the direct personal involvement of the president. He was instrumental in getting almost every country in attendance to commit to two-degree temperature rise targets, helped get important concessions from China on emissions monitoring and established long-term financing ($100 billion annually by 2020, $20 billion for the U.S.) for international adaptation efforts.
  • Executive appointments: Lisa Jackson at EPA. Steven Chu at Department of Energy. Nancy Sutley at Council on Environmental Quality. Ken Salazar at Department of Interior. John Holdren at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. Jane Lubchenco at National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Carol Browner as special adviser to the president on energy and climate change issues. These are all smart, competent, committed people who will help the president shape effective environmental policies over the course of his administration.

So what can Obama do for the environment in 2010 and the second half of his term? Here are just a few things:

The To-Do List

  • Climate: Above all, the president should push Congress hard to pass legislation that controls greenhouse gases by setting a price on carbon. The president already has a climate bill, Waxman-Markey, that had passed the House last year and was ready to go to the Senate. Instead of pushing this bill, he and the Senate leadership chose to focus on health care. That process consumed the heart of this Congress’ legislative calendar and much of its political energy. While that choice was understandable, it leaves action on climate and energy as the largest unfulfilled element of the president’s legislative agenda.Debates on climate appear set to start again in the Senate with the release of a new bill next week. The president should push the debate forward, hopefully resulting in a new law that sets economy-wide greenhouse gas controls before the November elections. This is admittedly an ambitious goal. If it proves impossible, Obama should dedicate as much energy in the second half of his term to climate as he did to health care in the first.
  • Air pollution: With so much focus on climate, traditional forms of pollution haven’t drawn much attention. Conventional pollutants like sulfur dioxide, nitrous oxides, mercury and ozone still pose significant health risks, and economists believe reducing emissions of these pollutants would result in substantial net benefits to the economy in life expectancy and quality of life. The EPA’s recent attempts to tighten regulations on these pollutants (both of which, it must be said, were authored by the Bush EPA) were struck down by courts. The Obama EPA should renew efforts to regulate these pollutants by issuing new versions of these rules (called CAIR and CAMR) as soon as possible. The president should throw his support behind proposed “3-pollutant” legislation on the Hill that would remove the legal barriers to stricter regulation of these pollutants, and follow that legislation up with action from the EPA. (More on that bill in a later post.)
  • Nuclear waste storage: The president has thrown his support behind nuclear power with $8 billion in loan guarantees for two new plants in Georgia. Regardless of your opinion of nuclear power as an energy source, you have to admit the storage of waste poses quite a problem. The president eliminated Yucca Mountain, the long-controversial water repository in Nevada, without proposing a specific alternative. He organized a blue-ribbon panel to look into solutions to the nuclear waste problem, and the commission is supposed to issue its recommendations sometime next year. They have their work cut out for them.
  • Environmental foreign policy: The president should also consider making environmental issues a more central part of his foreign policy. Whether it’s pushing China, India, Russia and others to agree to global cuts in carbon emissions, or calling Japan out for its cynical efforts to avoid limits on bluefin tuna fishing, ample opportunities exist for advancing U.S. environmental interests internationally and re-establishing our position as the global leader on environmental policy innovation. The president has made a good start in this area, but he can do more.
  • Future environmental dangers: Finally, the president can move beyond environmental issues that have been neglected in the past to examining possible future environmental risks. Many such risks, such as pollution of water with pharmaceuticals and the environmental impacts of nanotechnology, aren’t sufficiently understood. Government also lacks the tools to deal with these issues even if they are identified as dangers. The president should dedicate resources to investigating these and other future risks, and push Congress to give the EPA authority to regulate them when supported by the science. These are the kinds of forward-looking reforms that Nixon pursued, and which could give Obama an enduring environmental legacy.

Success on these fronts — and above all on climate — would not only fulfill President Obama’s environmental promises, but would put him in contention as the most environmentally successful president since Nixon, and likely ever.