This President’s Day, let’s take a look at the best and worst environmental legacies of a few of our most recent presidents:
Ronald Reagan (R President 1981-1989):
- Best: Although the Reagan administration is not generally thought of as having been environmentally-friendly, there were a few shining stars here. As governor of California, he worked to reduce motor vehicle emissions and helped protect Lake Tahoe and Redwood Forests. As president, Reagan signed bills resulting in 10 million acres of land being designated wilderness areas. He also helped clear the way for the implementation of the Montreal Protocol, which called for “phasing out” of ozone-depleting chemicals.
- Worst: The Reagan administration leased out huge tracts of national land for fossil fuel development. This president was quoted as saying, “Trees cause more pollution than automobiles do” – an erroneous and misleading statement related to photochemical smog. The Reagan years were also characterized by EPA budget cuts and enforcement-blocking.
George Bush Sr (R President 1989-1993):
- Best: Bush Sr can be credited for signing the Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990, which addressed problems like acid rain and urban smog. He also appointed the first professional conservationist as the head of the EPA.
- Worst: In 1992 Bush refused to sign the Convention on Biological Diversity at the Rio de Janeiro Earth Summit, a treaty that was signed by over 150 countries and designed to protect against habitat loss and species extinction.
Bill Clinton (D President 1993-2001):
- Best: Environmental critics had mixed feelings about the Clinton administration. Among his environmentally progressive initiatives were the designation of 10 new national monuments. He also introduced new standards for the labeling of organic foods and signed the Kyoto protocol.
- Worst: Clinton was mostly criticized by environmentalists for pushing for NAFTA, which lowered environmental standards in the interest of free trade.
George W Bush (R President 2001-2009):
- Best: Bush had a few environmental wild cards up his sleeve. At the very end of his presidency, he designated 200,000 miles of Pacific Ocean to be national monuments.
- Worst: There are a lot of “worsts” here… a former oil man, Bush was seen as conceding too much to the oil industry’s interests. One of the biggest issues that environmentalists had with this president was his withdrawal from the Kyoto global climate change treaty, which seemed to be blatant doubt-casting on the science of climate change. In fact, the Bush administration was suspected of a deliberate attempt to downplay the urgency of the climate change issue. Bush has also been criticized for threatening the integrity of the Endangered Species Act and approving mountain-top removal coal mining, among other environmental indiscretions.
Barack Obama (D President 2009-current):
- Best: Obama has become known for championing electric vehicle use and the protection of polar bear habitat.
- Worst: Our current president was given a less-than-stellar “report card” grade of C- by the Center for Biological Diversity in 2011. Obama has been criticized for not being tough or decisive enough on issues like climate change and the Keystone XL pipeline. More optimistic environmentalists are hopeful that Obama will “stick his neck out” for the environment further in his second term.
Of course, this list is not all-inclusive, and there’s more to it than the idealism of any given commander in chief (congressional power, environmental disasters, etc). However, environmental action and policy is definitely one way in which we remember these presidents historically.