Who was the greenest president?

Teddy Roosevelt and John Muir, founder of the Sierra Club, in Yosemite

Most environmentalists this fall will vote for Barack Obama, and for good reason. But when a dozen of America’s environmental leaders were asked to select our nation’s greenest president, they put two Republicans — Teddy Roosevelt and Richard Nixon — atop the list.

Roosevelt, of course, was a conservationist and champion of what became America’s national parks. It was on Nixon’s watch that the EPA was created, along with landmark legislation protecting air, water and endangered species. When Russell Train, a moderate Republican who chaired the White House Council on Environmental Quality under Nixon, died the other day, he was lauded by environmentalists.

“Conservative environmentalist is not an oxymoron,” says Theodore Roosevelt IV, an investment banker and the great-grandson of Teddy Roosevelt. Unhappily, Republican environmentalists like TR IV have become an endangered species.

The survey to identify America’s greenest presidents was conducted by Corporate Knights, a Toronto-based publication that calls itself “the magazine for clean capitalism.” It was released this moring [Sept. 18] at the National Press Club in Washington, where several of the voters — Ralph Nader of Public Citizen, Joe Romm of Climate Progress and Robert Engelman of The Worldwatch Institute — talked about the results. Others who participated in survey include Mike Brune of the Sierra Club, Phil Radford of Greenpeace, Frances Beinecke of NRDC, Mark Tercek of The Nature Conservancy, Carter Roberts of WWF, as well as Van Jones and Bill McKibben.

Teddy Roosevelt and Nixon were followed in the voting by Jimmy Carter, Obama, Thomas Jefferson, Gerald Ford, Franklin D. Roosevelt and Bill Clinton. More details are here, along with a story about the results by Grist’s David Roberts.

This kind of historical exercise is an invitation to put Obama and Mitt Romney in context. Several voters put Obama in their top three — Van Jones, who briefly worked in the Obama White House, ranked him No. 1, Kevin Knoblauch of the Union of Concerned Scientists had him No. 2, and Joe Romm and NRDC’s Frances Beinecke had him at No. 3.

So can Barack Obama be called a “green president”? To his credit, the president’s stimulus package include about $80 billion to support clean energy and energy efficiency, which is surely  the biggest expenditure on non-fossil energy in US history. The Obama administration also enacted tough fuel-economy standards, too; they are a costly and ineffective way to  reduce greenhouse gas emissions from cars and trucks — a gasoline tax would be better — but they will nevertheless have a major impact.

Obama’s failure to get Congress to enact climate regulation must be counted heavily against him. He faced still opposition from the fossil-fuel industry, coal-state senators and Republicans. But he never really tried to lead on the climate issue–to explain to the American people, using charts and graphs if necessary, why rising greenhouse gas emissions are a matter of urgent importance. He’s been timidly green.

These days, Obama touts an “all of the above” energy policy, which, as Joe Romm pointed out, is no policy at all.

“All of the above is not a strategy,” Romm said. “It’s just more of the same.”

By comparison, Jimmy Carter looks courageous, as Engelman of the Worldwatch Institute noted. Carter made a series of speeches about energy, urging Americans to turn down their thermostats and drive less. He installed solar panels on the White House roof. In his famous “malaise” speech in 1979, Carter said, remarkably: “We’ve learned that piling up material goods cannot fill the emptiness of lives which have no confidence or purpose.”

“Alone of any president,” Engelman said, “he asked us to think a little bit about the way we consume.” Of course, that didn’t turn out to well.

But if Obama suffers by comparison to Carter, Romney looks even worse when measured against Teddy Roosevelt.

As David Roberts writes:

On March 14, 1903, Roosevelt signed an executive order establishing the first national wildlife refuge in Florida’s Pelican Island. With that, he launched a streak of conservationist accomplishments unrivaled since. By the time he left office in 1908, he had set aside 150 national forests, 51 federal bird reservations, 18 national monuments and five national parks, which he treasured for their “essential democracy.” He protected an astonishing 230 million acres – 10 per cent of the entire United States land area.

In his “New Nationalism” speech — read it, it’s quite something — dedicating a monument to abolitionist John Brown in Kansas, Roosevelt spoke eloquently about private interests and public goods. He warned:

…our government, National and State, must be freed from the sinister influence or control of special interests. Exactly as the special interests of cotton and slavery threatened our political integrity before the Civil War, so now the great special business interests too often control and corrupt the men and methods of government for their own profit. We must drive the special interests out of politics.

There can be no effective control of corporations while their political activity remains. To put an end to it will be neither a short nor an easy task, but it can be done.

He spoke, too, of conservation:

…natural resources must be used for the benefit of all our people, and not monopolized for the benefit of the few, and here again is another case in which I am accused of taking a revolutionary attitude.

Of all the questions which can come before this nation, short of the actual preservation of its existence in a great war, there is none which compares in importance with the great central task of leaving this land even a better land for our descendants than it is for us, and training them into a better race to inhabit the land and pass it on. Conservation is a great moral issue, for it involves the patriotic duty of insuring the safety and continuance of the nation. Let me add that the health and vitality of our people are at least as well worth conserving as their forests, waters, lands, and minerals, and in this great work the national government must bear a most important part.


Here’s Romney mocking Obama on NBC’s Meet the Press earlier this month:

I’m not in this race to slow the rise of the oceans or to heal the planet. I’m in this race to help the American people.

This is the best the Republicans can do? Sad.


  1. Stuart says


    You seem quite certain that the new fuel standards represent major progress in combating climate change. I am not so sure.

    What criterion do you use to determine if a program, such as fuel standards, will meaningfully impact total greenhouse emissions? For a moment, let’s assume that the fuel standards impact total vehicle emissions as promised. In 2030, what percentage reduction in total U.S. greenhouse emission do you anticipate as a result of this program? In general, do you ever apply a materiality test before declaring a program beneficial, or is less always better and meaningful?


  2. Sam says

    In all fairness to Romney, he is not against the environment. In fact he generally has few beliefs and is clearly willing to trumpet a tune that results in a material benefit for himself.

    So if Romney is peddling the “I dont care about the environment” line, it underlines that this idea is what most Americans buy into.

    We shouldn’t bother ranking what individual presidents have thought or believed about the environment – we should instead be asking ourselves what has happened to all the American people and why today we basically as a country and voting group do not care. Politicians will never care if the people dont care to begin with.

  3. Michael Kane says

    A better question would be to identify a few specific environmental initiatives actually approved and promoted and accomplished by each president.

    A list like that would give credit where it is due, and would not attribute credit to presidents who happened to be in office when others were responsible for initatives.

    It is common to give presidents credit for anything good that happens on their watch, but that practice is misleading.

  4. Lewis E. Ward says

    Teddy Roosevelt had a vision and at the time he influenced political and scientific leaders, It’s unfortunate that influence hasn’t continued to inspire the political agenda of either party.

  5. Hannah B says

    These early American environmental sustainability initiatives are interesting to read. I found the pieces about Teddy’s Roosevelt’s initiatives to stand out the most. In 1903, there were no laws or environmental agencies to hold people or companies accountable for their sustainability actions. Roosevelt took it upon himself to start protected wildlife areas, national parks, and conservation areas because he cared about the US and its future. Roosevelt did not do these acts out of social status or with re-election coming up; he started America’s sustainability initiatives because of genuine concern for the future to come.

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