A Legacy That Cannot Be Undone

President Obama has done more than any other president to protect our air, land, water, and climate—and for that, we thank him.

Steve Rhodes

History will pass final judgment on Barack Obama’s presidency. But even now, as he prepares to leave the White House, this much is clear: President Obama’s remarkable environmental legacy cannot be easily undone by his successor or this extremist Republican Congress. Nor should they try. The historic actions Obama has taken to protect our air, land, water, and climate are immensely popular with and important to the American people.

If we take a close look at Obama’s legacy, it goes beyond the Paris climate treaty, the Clean Power Plan, and the withdrawal of large swaths of the Arctic and Atlantic from oil and gas drilling.

The deeper legacy of President Obama is this: He has shown that defending our climate is a choice. In making the choice for climate action, he has shown it can be done. Obama’s most lasting legacy is that any government leader who does less or tries to turn back the clock will be held accountable for the destruction that climate change will mean.

This is critical now that it is so urgent that we move quickly to take climate action and build a clean energy economy. Climate change is the central crisis of our time, and it touches us all. Our planet has been telling us, in every way it knows how, that we must act swiftly to slow, stop, and reverse climate change. On Wednesday, even as a Senate committee was considering the nomination of Scott Pruitt―a climate change skeptic―to head the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) delivered more sobering news: 2016 marked the third consecutive year of record warmth for our planet. The global average temperature over land and ocean surfaces for last year was the highest since record keeping began in 1880, according to NOAA scientists. In addition, storms, wildfires, and droughts all take a terrible toll on our communities. A string of historic floods last year devastated parts of the Carolinas, Georgia, Louisiana, Texas, West Virginia, and Maryland.

Through President Obama’s actions and choices, how we address climate change has been redefined. Tackling the issue helps us today. It builds a stronger economy. It protects our children. It is the path of progress.

Obama’s legacy will live on in the advancements that clean energy will continue to make at the state and local levels in the United States. Governors in the Midwest are already picking up the slack on clean energy, reflected in December’s announcements of new climate and clean energy policies in Illinois, Michigan, and Ohio. And New York has just announced a major increase in the works to its wind capacity, making it the leader in offshore wind energy.

Obama’s legacy will live on in the opposition that the Trump administration will face when it tries to turn back to the dirty energy of the past. People across the country are gearing up to take action, speak out to defend our environmental and health safeguards, and participate in mobilizations like the January 21 Women’s March in Washington D.C., which includes a strong environmental justice platform.

And Obama’s legacy will live on in a new international resolve and spirit that we saw in the creation of the Paris climate treaty and in the continued commitment of countries around the world to take strong climate action even as Trump tries to move America backward. Just this week at the World Economic Forum, Chinese President Xi Jinping reaffirmed China’s commitment to climate and clean energy action, announcing that the nation was scrapping plans for 104 coal-fired power plant projects― equal to one-third the size of the entire U.S. coal fleet.

In a modern economy, the companies and organizations that lead tend to win economically. President Obama funded the science to help us understand climate change. He funded technological development to help us come up with real and timely solutions. He put in place the policies that make climate action real: Under Obama, clean energy deployment has surged and costs have come down dramatically.

Trump and his Cabinet of Polluters do not acknowledge this new reality of climate action and the need to limit warming to no more than 1.5 degrees Celsius. They are out of touch with the new economic facts of clean energy.

Choosing not to tackle climate change means being out of touch with what is good for our economy. Wind and solar power costs are falling every year and are already competitive with fossil fuels in some states. And across all 50 states, 2.5 million Americans are employed in the clean energy sector.

Climate inaction means being out of touch with what the majority wants. We’ve long known that a majority of the American people are concerned about climate change and support curbing carbon pollution. Recent polls show that the majority of Trump voters feel the same way.

The clean energy revolution is not something that Trump can put back in the bottle. In fact, he will try to undermine and slow it at his peril. With the vision of what government climate action can look like, Trump, his Cabinet of Polluters, and the anti-environmental extremists in Congress will be held to a high bar of accountability for their actions and their inaction.

President Obama summed up the choice in his farewell address: “Without bolder action, our children won’t have time to debate the existence of climate change; they’ll be busy dealing with its effects: environmental disasters, economic disruptions, and waves of climate refugees seeking sanctuary. Now, we can―and should―argue about the best approach to the problem. But to simply deny the problem not only betrays future generations; it betrays the essential spirit of innovation and practical problem-solving that guided our founders.”

Turning climate inaction into a choice that government leaders can be held accountable for is a lasting legacy for which we thank you, President Obama.

About the Authors

Susan Casey-Lefkowitz

Chief Program Officer

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