Several people have asked me what I think of Jonathan Chait’s new column in New York magazine: “Obama Might Actually Be the Environmental President.” Apparently some folks are quite upset about it and think it’s terrible, though I’m not entirely sure why.
Seems to me Chait mostly gets it right. He’s right that Obama has made much more progress on climate and clean energy than he gets credit for. He’s right that Obama has mostly done it through the stimulus bill and a series of low-key regulatory actions, rather than through high-profile “green” fights. In the high-profile green fights that have been had, cap-and-trade and Keystone, Obama has disappointed, and is disappointing, and promises to further disappoint many greens, but Chait is right that the disappointment has unfairly tarred the whole presidency. He’s right that greens’ harsh judgment is born of a sense of desperate urgency about the scale of action necessary.
And — perhaps more controversially — Chait is right that the decisions Obama makes on Clean Air Act authority in his second term are more significant, in carbon terms, than the much more high-profile decision he’s going to make on the Keystone XL pipeline. (Glad to see Chait call out NRDC’s ingenious proposal to make carbon regulations do serious work at low cost.)
What I think has my friends upset, and where they differ, is Chait’s overall assessment: that Obama is therefore “the environmental president.” The question here is — as it is for every historical figure, but especially Obama, and especially on climate — compared to what?
Is Obama a success on climate compared to what needs to be done? Ha ha. No. Of course not. But then all world leaders fail that test. Chait says 17 percent carbon reductions by 2020 is greens’ “holy grail,” but it’s more like a moldy grail. We now know that much more is needed. For the U.S. to truly do its part, to achieve carbon zero by 2040 or so, would require massive systems change, an all-hands-on-deck wartime mobilization. Obama is not delivering that, or anything close, nor could he.
A success on climate compared to previous presidents? Or to a possible President Mitt Romney? Well, of course. Clinton and Gore bungled it and George W. Bush crammed it forcefully out of sight. Mitt Romney would have done doodly-squat. (And no, John McCain wouldn’t have done anything either.) Compared to nothing, Obama’s done a fantastic job.
So those are the poles. Judge him by the dysfunctional sh*tpile that is current American politics or by the crushing size of the climate need? Or somewhere in between? Chait chooses to judge relative to the sh*tpile. Lots of climate hawks judge relative to the need. It’s mostly a matter of aesthetic preference or identity projection, to be honest. I’m not sure the grand historical thumbs-up or thumbs-down is all that important.
The question for me is whether Obama has been a success compared to what was (and is) possible. And here, I’m with Chait: If he delivers ambitious regulations on existing power plants, then yes, Obama will be an overall success on climate and energy, even if he approves Keystone. Given the situation he inherited — a vertiginous economic crisis followed by persistent high unemployment, a Republican Party now single-mindedly devoted to nihilistic opposition, and a series of choke points like the filibuster that give a committed congressional opposition almost total veto power — he has accomplished a miraculous amount. (Remember universal health care? That was cool.)
There’s more he could have done, of course, but as Chait himself has written, the American public and commentariat alike are deep in the grips of magical thinking about the presidency, blowing it up all out of proportion to its real power (on domestic policy, at least). Unless his agenda is shared by a large and muscular congressional majority — and Obama’s climate agenda is not, as was painfully demonstrated — the president has to work by hook or by crook, incrementally, in the margins. Ritually chanting “bully pulpit” and “leadership” won’t change that.
To be clear, I absolutely think Obama should reject the Keystone pipeline. It is the right thing to do, on both substantive grounds and on the basis of its powerful symbolic value. Some people think the Keystone fight is preventing or constraining what otherwise might be bipartisan progress on energy; I think that’s nonsense. Some think Obama can get “credibility” or “credit” from his congressional opponents if he approves Keystone; that’s nonsense too. Any Republican or fossil-state Dem who plans to fight Obama on EPA regs will fight him regardless of what he does on Keystone. But on the merits, it’s clear that those regs, especially the ones on existing power plants, are the bigger brass ring, the fight that must be won.
In a way, it is with climate as it is with so much else in the Obama era. He has not delivered the grand, dramatic transformation so many people wanted. He has not changed the narrative that big government is bad, or that regulations always slow economic growth, or that the deficit is a dire threat, or that “all of the above” is a sensible energy strategy. American politics remains trapped in a set of frames that make active, effective governance of the sort badly needed in the 21st century almost impossible. Obama didn’t change the weltanschauung. He does, however, deserve credit for doing a great deal within its constraints.
Climate hawks should not waste their time hoping for a Great Man (or Woman) to save the day in the next election. No one person, no matter how brave or clever, can turn the tide. The impediments to climate action in the U.S. are primarily structural and systemic; systems thinking, not Romantic tales of individual heroism, is what’s needed.