As President Barack Obama prepares to leave the White House after eight years in office, he leaves with a "curiously contradictory" legacy on climate change, according to a reported profile that detailed his successes and failures in fighting global warming.
In a sit-down interview, Obama told The New York Times that data from the regular briefings he receives on climate change is "terrifying," but acknowledged that he hasn't been able to get American politicians -- including some members of his own party -- to see the situation with urgency.
Still, Obama said, he believes history will mark his efforts to combat climate change as likely his most significant contribution as president.
Obama blamed the literal glacial pace of climate change for lax attitudes toward the threat it poses.
“What makes climate change difficult is that it is not an instantaneous catastrophic event,” he said. “It’s a slow-moving issue that, on a day-to-day basis, people don’t experience and don’t see.”
Obama's greatest domestic efforts to combat climate change were defeated not only by Republicans, some of whom still deny human industry has an impact on the planet, but also from fellow Democrats who represent states dependent on industry and coal, the paper noted. That led to the defeat of Obama's 2010 effort to push cap and trade legislation through congress, which would have set hard limits on emissions.
For the president, it was the second failure to rally leaders on climate change after efforts to enact a UN climate change treaty failed in 2009.
“One would have hoped for transformational leadership, in the way J.F.K. would have done it,” said Hans Joachim Schellnhuber, the director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research in Germany.
In response, Obama has tried to bypass congress, using executive authority to push his 2014 Clean Power Plan. While Obama's advisers believed they had found a way to circumvent lawmakers, others accused the president of vastly overstepping his authority. The plan, like several other executive actions by the president, remains mired in legal battles and its fate will be eventually decided by the Supreme Court.
Obama once again sidestepped lawmakers by signing an international climate-change agreement on Sept. 3, during his visit to China. The U.S. and China are the world's two biggest polluters, a report in The Washington Post noted, representing 38 percent of total global emissions.
The international agreement won't take effect until other countries sign on, representing at least 55 percent of global emissions -- but with China and the U.S. as signatories, Obama said he hopes the deal's completion is on the horizon.
Despite the objections of some skeptics, who agree climate change is real but dispute the effort to tie current weather patterns to the phenomena, Obama said he's a true believer in the idea that increasingly dramatic weather events are manifestations of a damaged planet.
In the Times interview, Obama pointed to the 2014 National Climate Assessment, which attributed the southwest's more intense heat waves and flooding in Miami to climate change. Benjamin J. Rhodes, an Obama adviser, told the Times the president was also influenced by books like “Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed,” which attributes the fall of several ancient civilizations to environmental disasters.
“More and more, there are events that are happening that are astoundingly unusual, that knock your socks off, like the flooding in Louisiana,” Michael Oppenheimer, a professor of geosciences and international affairs at Princeton University, told the Times. “Those are the kinds of events where it’s becoming possible to draw attribution.”
The president said he isn't worried about negative reaction to his crusade against climate change, and his statements prove he isn't hesitant to frame the issue in dramatic language.
“Some day we may see this as the moment when we decided to save our planet,” Obama said in China Sept. 3. “History will judge today’s efforts as pivotal.”