Barack Obama Will Be Fighting for His Legacy in Paris

When I first saw the headline at Yahoo Politics, “Obama’s legacy on climate is at stake in Paris talks,” I skipped over the word “climate” and assumed it was referring to the terrorist attacks. After all, Obama’s ISIS policy is arguably responsible for the Muslim refugee crisis, which contributed to the Paris attacks. Obama should be worried about his legacy.

But no; the headline refers to the war on carbon dioxide.

President Barack Obama heads to a terror-scarred Paris Sunday night to tackle one of the most important priorities of his second term — climate change.

Obama has been laying the groundwork for years ahead of the United Nations’ two-week conference on countering climate change, where nearly 200 countries will be hammering out a pact to cut global emissions of heat-trapping gases. Using executive power, the president has moved the U.S. toward lowering carbon emissions, a key step in building credibility for his efforts to coax China, Brazil and other developing nations to do the same. The Paris conference may help cement his second-term legacy — unless it is overshadowed by terror concerns or sabotaged by Republican opposition to his plans.

Obama’s environmental legacy at this point is mixed. Environmentalists were not enthusiastic about his first term, when health care reform took priority. An effort to pass a cap-and-trade bill for carbon emissions — the Holy Grail of climate change activism — fell apart in 2010. In 2011, Al Gore wrote in Rolling Stone that he was disappointed the president hadn’t brought “change” to the problem of global warming. Though Obama’s stimulus bill included $90 billion in green energy investments, environmentalists were discouraged by the lack of any concrete legislation lowering U.S. emissions.

This all changed in the president’s second term, however, when he told top aides he planned to go big on climate. In June 2013, Obama laid out an ambitious plan to cut emissions from coal-burning power plants and other sources that could be implemented without legislation. “As a president, as a father and as an American, I’m here to say we need to act,” Obama announced in the sweltering heat of a Washington summer. In March, the president told the Huffington Post that getting climate change taken more seriously would be one of the ways he would measure his success as president.

There is an implicit admission here that Obamacare is a failed legacy and the President needs to come up with another one. We have reason to hope he will fail.

But it’s unclear if the president will be remembered for his actions on the environment, especially given that executive action — an easier legacy to erase than legislation — can be reversed by the next president. “He’s coming back to an issue he really cares about,” says Julian Zelizer, a political history professor at Princeton University. “He’s not doing it through legislative action but through executive action, which is more precarious and I think in some ways has less political impact than a bill.”

A Paris treaty would be harder to roll back, but there seems to be real opposition to to it.

…Obama still faces fierce resistance from the Republican-controlled House. The House is set to debate as early as Tuesday a resolution opposing the Environmental Protection Agency’s new greenhouse gas regulations for power plants, called the Clean Power Plan, which passed the Senate last week. There’s also a Republican movement to block allocations for the U.N.’s Green Climate Fund, which gives billions of dollars to developing nations to curb emissions. The president could veto these measures, but the attack could still raise “confusion” among other countries about whether the president can follow through on his climate agenda, according to Schmidt.

This opposition, as well as the intense focus on how to stop ISIS terror attacks, threatens to overshadow the president’s diplomatic achievements on the environment.

We have to hope that these factors work to overwhelm Obama.