EDITOR’S NOTE: This article is part of The Nation’s special issue on Barack Obama’s presidency, available in full here.
No fair evaluation of Barack Obama’s record on any major issue, including climate change, can underestimate two central facts of his presidency: He was the first African American to win the Oval Office; and he did so at a time, 150 years after the Civil War, when racist sentiment remained alive, well, and even popular, as Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign demonstrated.
All presidents confront opposition, but Obama encountered a level of hostility, even hatred, unique in modern US history. He received three times as many threats of violence during his first year in office as his predecessors did, according to Secret Service sources cited by The Washington Post, many of them “racially tinged.” His very legitimacy as president was disputed for years by the birther movement led by Trump with the silent assent of top Republicans. Before Obama even took office, Mitch McConnell, then the Senate minority leader, ordered Republicans to oppose any and all of his initiatives—never mind that millions of Americans were losing their jobs and their homes amid the economic crisis Obama inherited.
Now Trump and the forces he represents will try to undo what Obama achieved. And nowhere are the stakes higher than on climate change (except for nuclear war, where it’s all too easy to imagine the volatile Trump unleashing catastrophe).
Climate change is not like other issues. Terrible, terrible suffering and damage could result from Trump’s policies on immigration, abortion, economic inequality, and more. Those policies, however, can eventually be reversed and the suffering eased. Not so with climate change. There are points of no return—in fact, we’ve already passed a number of them. Thanks to earlier emissions of carbon dioxide and other heat-trapping greenhouse gases, the earth is experiencing record temperatures, melting ice, rising seas, and more droughts and extreme weather—with much more of the same locked in for years to come.
Our civilization is racing toward the cliff. Our only hope was and remains to rapidly phase out carbon-based fuels in favor of clean energy. The transition would have been challenging enough if Hillary Clinton, with her pledge to erect 500 million solar panels nationwide, had succeeded Obama. Now, with Trump and his fossil-fuel buddies in charge, one shudders to contemplate the future.
But giving up is not an option, and there are some bright stars by which to navigate these treacherous waters. For starters, what Trump intends to do may turn out to be very different from what he actually accomplishes. Judging by the hapless rollout of his White House transition, he could end up presiding over a remarkably ineffective administration. He also could overreach, as Republicans did under House Speaker Newt Gingrich in the 1990s, when their attempts to gut environmental laws and defund the federal government triggered an electoral backlash.