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Obama Might Actually Be the Environmental President

He mandated an 83 percent increase in vehicle fuel-efficiency standards.  

This metric isn’t entirely fair, of course, because most, though not all, of this drop occurred for reasons having nothing to do with Obama. About half of the emissions drop can probably be attributed to the recession. (When people cut back on their spending, they do less driving, don’t run the air conditioner as high, and so on.) Another portion of the decline occurred because the fracking boom flooded the market with cheap natural gas, which replaced much dirtier coal. These trends will probably level off, as the price of natural gas has plunged so quickly drillers have already scaled back their production. Still, even if the progress was temporary and mainly a result of luck, it has provided Obama with breathing room that most observers haven’t been willing to grant him.

The second way to measure Obama’s climate-change record is: What has he done? He has done quite a bit, probably far more than you think, and not all of it advertised as climate legislation, or advertised as much of anything at all. The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act was many things—primarily, a desperate bid to shove money into enough Americans’ pockets to prevent another Great Depression—but one of them was a major piece of environmental reform. The law contained upwards of $90 billion in subsidies for green energy, which had a catalyzing effect on burgeoning industries. American wind-power generation has doubled, and solar power has increased more than six times over. As Time magazine’s Michael Grunwald detailed in his book The New New Deal, the new law suddenly transformed the Department of Energy, previously a sclerotic backwater charged mainly with overseeing the nuclear-weapons cache, into a massive new engine of cutting-edge environmental science.

The stimulus had the misfortune of absorbing the brunt of the public’s dismay with the economic crisis, and Republicans successfully turned Solyndra, an anomalous case of a green-energy subsidy that went bust, into a symbol that rendered the whole law so unpopular Democrats quickly grew afraid to tout it. Even a close observer like Lemann has forgotten that it was indeed “major environmental legislation.” And yet, the wave of innovation—new fuels, plus turbines, energy meters, and other futuristic devices—will reverberate for years. Envia Systems, a stimulus-financed clean-energy firm in Silicon Valley, has developed technology for electric-car batteries three times as efficient as the technology in the Volt, capable of shaving $5,000 off the sticker price of an electric car when it comes to market in 2015. Just a few weeks ago, the Times reported on a new stimulus-financed research project to increase the energy content (and thus reduce the emissions) of natural gas.

The administration has also carried out an ambitious program of regulation, having imposed or announced higher standards for gas mileage in cars, fuel cleanliness, energy efficiency in appliances, and emissions from new power plants. In aggregate, they amount to a major assault on climate change. Some environmentalists judge them to be insufficient—a fair critique—but many more Obama supporters aren’t even aware that they exist. This is likely because none of these regulations produced any political theater. There was no legislation, no ponderous Sunday-morning talk-show chin-scratching, no dramatic wrangling of votes on the House floor. Just the issuing of a new regulation, a smallish one-day story.

Last August, for instance, the administration announced it was ratcheting up vehicle fuel-efficiency standards, from 29.7 miles per gallon to 54.5 miles per gallon. The news barely got a day of coverage, coming as it did during the first day of the Republican National Convention. About six weeks ago, the administration announced new standards for cleaner gasoline. “There is not another air-pollution-control strategy that we know of that will produce as substantial, cost-effective, and expeditious emissions reductions,” cooed the executive director of the National Association of Clean Air Agencies. Remember that?

The political theater has instead played itself out in two episodes in which Obama has appeared impotent, or even indifferent, in the face of climate change. Currently, we are in the midst of the drama over the proposed Keystone pipeline, which Obama has hinted he will approve. nasa scientist James Hansen has proclaimed the pipeline, which would carry oil from the Canadian tar sands, “game over” for the climate. Most analysts, though, don’t support Hansen’s apocalyptic view. A survey of studies conducted by the Congressional Research Service found that the pipeline would increase carbon emissions by anywhere from 0.06 percent to 0.3 percent per year. (Note that emissions dropped 3.7 percent—twelve times the high-end estimate—last year.) Wonkblog reporter Brad Plumer called the pipeline “a slight step in the opposite direction” of meeting Obama’s climate goals. The pipeline’s outsize role in the presidential campaign, and the noisy protests it inspires, have elevated it far beyond the scale of more consequential environmental decisions.