Environmentalists may find little common ground with today's Republican Party, but they have no problem with the GOP of yesteryear.
In fact, the leaders of influential national environmental groups in a recent poll chose Republican Presidents Theodore Roosevelt and Richard Nixon as the "greenest" presidents ever, followed by Democrat Jimmy Carter.
The ranking released yesterday by the Toronto-based Corporate Knights magazine asked the heads of 12 major environmental organizations to nominate up to three past presidents they believe did the most for environmental preservation during their presidencies.
Participants included the Nature Conservancy, the Union of Concerned Scientists, Friends of the Earth, the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Sierra Club, among others.
Roosevelt was the clear winner, appearing on all but one of the 12 "greenest" lists and at the top of eight. Roosevelt, who served from 1901 to 1909, was a "transformational leader, rather than a transactional leader," said Ralph Nader, the former Green Party presidential contender and founder of Public Citizen.
Rather than waiting for Americans to show they wanted environmental protection and public land conservation in polls and through demonstrations, Nader said, Roosevelt used the bully pulpit of the presidency to drum up support for those values at a time when they had little foothold in the public discourse. Roosevelt helped them gain that foothold.
"We have had very few transformational leaders," Nader said at an event yesterday at Washington's National Press Club hosted by Corporate Knights.
Nader and others honored Roosevelt for his conservation work, including the creation of the National Parks system. They said that Roosevelt was striving against entrenched business interests such as mining and timber, and saw conservation as a duty owed to posterity.
Posterity, several participants noted, is an important element of environmentalism because current generations might not experience all of the benefits of protecting the environment. But Worldwatch Institute President Robert Engelman said it could be a difficult idea to sell politically.
Engelman said that whatever President Obama's shortcomings on environmental matters, he did make a point of mentioning posterity when accepting the Democratic nomination earlier this month in Charlotte, N.C. Citizenship, Obama said in the address, is "a word at the very heart of our founding, a word at the very essence of our democracy, the idea that this country only works when we accept certain obligations to one another and to future generations."
"Your voters are people who are living today," Engelman said. "But there is some need for a president to have some kind of pact with the voiceless and voteless future."
Carter, like Roosevelt, was cited for using his office to expand the frontiers of the environmental movement, in his case with an emphasis on energy alternatives and efficiency. But while Roosevelt has the national parks and numerous other achievements to show for his trouble, participants said, Carter is remembered mostly for frustrated ambition and initiatives, like the solar panels on the White House roof, that were quickly reversed.
"There's a bit of a tragedy there," said Nader. While Carter showed courage in taking on issues like U.S. energy consumption, Nader observed that soaring oil prices and other factors allowed him to be caricatured by his opponents in a way that discouraged other elected officials from following in his footsteps.
David Jenkins, government affairs director for ConservAmerica, said via email that Carter contributed to the problem by appearing weak and timid in the face of the energy crisis. "He asked Americans to sacrifice and lower their living standards in the face of a challenge as opposed to being proactive and appearing to comprehensively address the problem," he said.
"We don't have now a popular and political ambience that allows presidents from either party to take a strong stance on the environment," said Engelman, who put Carter at the top of his list. He urged his fellow environmentalists not to "blame the victim" -- in this case elected officials -- but to "take our show on the road" and help drum up support among voters for more aggressive environmental policies.
Friends of the Earth President Erich Pica disagreed, saying that Roosevelt and Carter were willing to lead. Obama and Republican nominee Mitt Romney, by contrast, are refusing to provide the same leadership despite the urgent need represented by global warming.
"If we had a Roosevelt or a Carter, I have no doubt that they would be using the presidential bully pulpit to convince the world that we have to get something done on climate," Pica said. He added that Obama appeared to be "leading from behind," as when he touted his administration's work in expanding oil and natural gas development.
"That's not a transformational statement," he said. "That's a statement about the status quo."
Joe Romm, editor of the "Climate Progress" blog and a senior fellow at Center for American Progress, also faulted Obama for embracing the "all of the above" energy strategy, which he said is not a strategy at all but a failure to choose a definitive course.
Nader said that Nixon earned second place on his survey for actions he took in part because he was unsettled by the ferocity of citizen movements of the 1960s, including the nascent environmental movement.
"He's the last Republican president who was afraid of liberals," Nader said. "The lesson of Nixon," he said, is that grass-roots energy is worth more than scholarly studies when it comes to motivating lawmakers.
Jenkins was not part of the Corporate Knights event, but he said that Nixon might deserve to be classed with Roosevelt and Carter as someone who led from conviction.
"While it is often difficult to be sure of his motivations, Nixon did make the environment a central part of his presidency and worked to rally the public around the need to 'make reparations for the damage we have done to our air, to our land, and to our water,'" he said. He pointed to Nixon's 1970 State of the Union address, in which the president said clean air, clean water and open spaces "should once again be the birthright of every American."
Romm was one of only three participants who gave Obama a place on his "greenest" list, in his case below Roosevelt and Nixon.
He said he did it because Obama has delivered results on things like fuel economy and renewable energy, not because he has been a particularly courageous messenger on the issue.
But the administration's substantial achievements are dwarfed, he said, by the urgent need to address climate change.
"It will be up to the next one or two presidents to decide whether this country gets on a sustainable path, or whether we realize the worst predictions on climate change," he said.
Jenkins said that Obama had not provided the leadership that would have given comprehensive climate change legislation its best chance of reaching his desk in the first two years of his presidency, when he still had Democratic majorities in both chambers of Congress.
"He can't fairly be blamed for the stalemate since 2010, when the House became uncooperative," said Jenkins, referring to the year Republicans took control of the House and made gains in the Senate. "But he should have been able to move the ball more in his first two years. Why did he leave the climate bill in the hands of two partisan Democrats, as opposed to exerting White House leadership and/or insisting on a bipartisan bill?"
The Democrats Jenkins refers to were Reps. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) and Ed Markey (D-Mass.), the sponsors of the cap-and-trade bill that cleared the House in 2009 only to die in the Senate. Nader has asked Markey to engage vocal climate change skeptic Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.) in a broadcast debate on the science of climate change, but he said Markey's office has shown less enthusiasm for the idea than Inhofe's has.
"You can't believe the number of calls I have made," said Nader, attributing what he saw as Markey's reluctance to participate as further evidence that climate change believers are shying away from climate change for political reasons.
Both Markey's and Inhofe's offices have agreed to Nader's proposed debate, but a date has not been set. Eben Burnham-Snyder, a spokesman for Markey, said his boss is interested in debating and has offered dates that were not accepted by Inhofe.
"This has not been one-sided," he said.