politics

Opinion: Obama's environmental legacy of missed opportunities

Thanks, Obama! The Arctic is worthy of protection, and certainly needs it. But is this last act more of too little, too late? DW's Sonya Diehn wishes Obama hadn't waited so long to try and leave an environmental legacy.

USA Barack Obama in Alaska (Reuters/J. Ernst)

There was a kind of collective exhilaration among environmentalists after Obama was first elected.

In his nomination victory speech, Obama had famously said: "Generations from now, we will be able to look back and tell our children … this was the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal."

But this exhilaration gradually faded, as the "hope" of Obama's campaign turned into cynicism.

Despite ideal conditions in the first half of his first term - a Democratic president, along with a Democratic majority in both House and Senate - Obama made little on his green promises.

Instead, he carried on with "business as usual": Opening public lands to coal mining, increasing off-shore drilling. He failed to secure enough support for cap-and-trade legislation, and couldn't bring a strong enough hand to get a climate deal out of Copenhagen in 2009.

To his credit - and what will likely comprise his actual environmental legacy - were hard-won stronger fuel efficiency standards, and investments in renewable energy.

Only more recently, toward the end of his second term, has Obama begun to turn his attention back to the planet.

Polar bear on iceberg (picture-alliance/H. Bäsemann)

The polar bear, icon of the Arctic, is set to decline as ice melts

Glacial turning point

His speech from a receding glacier last year (pictured at top) seemed to symbolize an environmental reawakening - and indeed, since around that time, he's taken strong steps.

Among these: the Clean Power Plan (trapped in legal limbo and likely to be killed once and for all by Trump's fossil-heavy administration).

Obama ratified the Paris Agreement on behalf of the United States (also a potential target for reversal by the incoming Trump administration).

He declared what was at the time the world's largest marine protected area, off the coast of his home state of Hawaii.

Obama eventually stopped waffling on the Keystone XL Pipeline to finally kill it, and even took the unprecedented step of ordering the Army Corps of Engineers to deny permission to construct the Dakota Access Pipeline (also likely to be reversed as Trump's fossils begin their oil orgy).

And now, the Arctic.

Sonya Angelica Diehn Environment Team Leader (DW/M. Müller)

Sonya Angelica Diehn is DW's Environment Team Leader

Too little, too late

Whether or not this use of executive power, to make a vast area off-limits to drilling for oil or gas, can withstand the Trump administration - well, that is still up for debate.

The consensus seems to be this would at least involve a lengthy legal battle - one I wouldn't be surprised the Trump administration would take on, considering the extremely heavy presence of the fossil fuel industry in Trump's cabinet and agency picks.

Don't get me wrong - the Arctic is certainly worthy of protection. It's an ecological wonderland, with an amazing diversity of species.

And it needs protection: Scientists and researchers have been ringing alarm bells over the unprecedented warming that's taking place there.

As global warming marches on, the Arctic is heating up twice as fast as the rest of the world - and is melting away. This in November, when the ice is normally building up.

So I can't help feeling that establishing this Arctic protection is too little, too late.

It's easy to judge an administration from the outside, and second-guess strategy without knowing the full thinking behind it. And granted, for most of his time in office, Obama faced an intransigent Congress crippled by filibustering Tea-Partyers.

But jeez, he really could have done more, and sooner, and stronger.

And because he prioritized politics over the planet, the Earth will suffer.

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