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Thursday, September 20, 2012

The Agenda: America\'s Greenest Presidents


What do Theodore Roosevelt, Richard M. Nixon and Jimmy Carter have in common? They are viewed as environmentally progressive presidents - at least to the 12 groups that ranked them in a survey released this week. Still, the challenges faced by presidents who stand up for the environment have shifted greatly over time, some of those organizations point out, making it hard to compare one leader's achievements with another's.

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Corporate Knights, a media and financial services company that promotes “clean capitalism” for companies, asked 12 leading environmental groups to name the three presidents they felt did the most for t he environment and to rank them from first to third. Point values were assigned to each rank. Theodore Roosevelt was the overwhelming victor, scoring 28 points; Richard Nixon was a distant second with 15; and Jimmy Carter followed with 12.

Perhaps most strikingly, of the 44 presidents who have held office over the last 223 years, only eight received votes. The others, ranked in order, were Barack Obama, Thomas Jefferson, Gerald R. Ford, Franklin D. Roosevelt and Bill Clinton.

Julian Zelizer, a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton, said that Teddy Roosevelt was a predictable top choice. “He really initiated a lot of the conservation programs,” he said, including setting aside dozens of forest preserves for protection as well as wildlife refuges and venerated national parks and monuments like the Grand Canyon and Yosemite.

To this day, Dr. Zelizer said, Roosevelt remains a popular figure because of his rugged persona as an explorer and a “man's man” who loved the outdoors.

“I think above all, he created an ethic in Americans to visit, explore environments,” said Michael Brune, executive director of the Sierra Club, one of the 11 organizations for which Theodore Roosevelt was the top choice.

While memories of Nixon's record (beyond the Watergate scandal) have faded for many Americans, any environmentalist with a sense of history is mindful of the pathbreaking protections he championed, including the creation of the federal Environmental Protection Agency and his signing of the Clean Air Act and Marine Mammal Protection Act.

Mr. Carter wins points for supporting Superfund legislation for the cleanup of toxic contamination and protecting swaths of land in Alaska. Then there were his appeals for energy conservation, said Robert Engelman, president of the Worldwatch Institute, which was the only group to give Mr. Carter the highest ranking.

In a l andmark television speech in April 1977, Mr. Carter exhorted Americans to rein in their consumption of gasoline and electricity. “We must not be selfish or timid if we hope to have a decent world for our children and grandchildren,” he said. “We simply must balance our demand for energy with our rapidly shrinking resources.”

“No other before or since has asked Americans to consume less energy than they do,” Mr. Engelman said. The pitch was not a popular one, however.

“He was laughed at then, and he is laughed at now,” he said. “No one would have the courage to make that point now.”

Dr. Zelizer argues that land protection was an easier sell for presidents in the not-too-distant past because the goal seemed straightforward and could generate some popular enthusiasm. “Now we're in an era when that enthusiasm has gone.” he said. “A lot of the time, problems are more prevalent in the minds of Americans than the possibilities.”

Today, some major environmental goals - reining in the greenhouse gas emissions that contribute to climate change, for example - seem more abstract, Mr. Engelman said. Because the goal is mainly to avert disaster for future generations, mustering support is one of the hardest things to do politically, he added.

Another problem today, said Mr. Brune of the Sierra Club, is the blurring of issues, or what he calls “manufactured confusion.”

“You have climate skeptics that are deliberately and intentionally trying to make it appear like a clear environmental issue is up for debate” - even though a scientific consensus exists on human-induced global warming, he said. Such efforts, abetted by money flowing from the coal, oil and gas sectors “pollute the political process,” he said.

Still, Mr. Brune points out that conflicts over the environment have a long history in the United States. At the turn of the last century, “you had railroad interests th at were fighting for more exploitation,” he said. “You had even more crass examples of all of these extractive industries literally buying members of Congress.” The main difference between now and then, he said, is that more industry money is flooding the political scene than ever before.

Mr. Engelman observed that partisanship on environmental matters, with Republicans pitted against environmentally minded Democrats, is a more recent trend. “Much of the environmental legislation that was passed in the 1970s had very bipartisan support,” he said. The pendulum began to shift after 1980, he said, with environmental protections cast by Republicans as a form of regulation and taxing. Yet addressing climate change will require both, he said.

A sharp divide in Congress between Democrats and Republicans and an entrenched aversion to compromise have made it difficult for President Obama to push through - or on the 2012 campaign trail, even mention - some of th e legislation and regulatory steps he favored early in his administration. “If you look at Clinton or Carter or Nixon - every single president was able to sign legislation that Congress passed,” Mr. Brune said. “Go through each one.”

“Obama doesn't have that,” he said. “He has to do it in the face of this head wind from Congress.”

On another level, judging success by markers like pristine forests, clean air and protected whales may be simplistic from today's perspective. The landscape is more complex and more challenging now, Mr. Brune said, although he remains hopeful.

“I like to think that the politicization of energy and environmental issues is a temporary ailment that afflicts our society,” he said.