An environmentalist’s historical guide to the State of the Union
The environment is a popular topic at this annual address, but what have presidents really said?
The State of the Union address is one of the biggest soapboxes a president gets. When Donald Trump speaks at the Capitol on Feb. 5, the audience should be in the range of 30 to 60 million viewers. For environmentalists, that’s a scary proposition. After all, last year Trump declared on national TV that he’d “ended the war on American Energy — and we have ended the war on clean coal.”
While the chances of a green message from Trump are slim to none, history offers a muted glimmer of hope. Contemplate this State of the Union statement: “Preservation of our environment is not a liberal or conservative challenge, it’s common sense.”
Did Bill Clinton or Barack Obama make that plea? Nope. Ronald Reagan uttered those words in his 1984 address.
Regardless of political affiliation, whether a president acts on it or not, protecting the environment has been a regular go-to in these addresses for well more than a century. For instance, in 1902, Teddy Roosevelt, who is often lauded for his conservation legacy, focused part of his State of the Union remarks on protecting game on forest reserves.
No doubt, the concept of the environment has evolved. Here’s a look at how presidents over the past half-century have addressed the issue:
Richard Nixon (1969–1974): Those with a sense of history know that despite Nixon’s myriad flaws, he is responsible for many of our modern environmental protections. Heck, he proposed the establishment of the Environmental Protection Agency in 1970. Not surprisingly, he used the State of the Union’s high-profile pulpit to push his environmental agenda in all five of his addresses. In 1971, for example, he called preserving the environment a “great goal” and pledged his commitment “to restore and enhance our natural environment.”
Gerald Ford (1974–1977): Ford’s short tenure after he replaced Nixon in the Oval Office included just three State of the Union addresses. The former Michigan congressman gave little optimism for the environmentally conscious in his 1975 speech: “In order that we make greater use of domestic coal resources, I am submitting amendments to the Energy Supply and Environmental Coordination Act which will greatly increase the number of power plants that can be promptly converted to coal.” Still, by his last address in 1977, even Ford reflected on the importance of renewable energy, becoming the first president to mention “wind” and “solar” in the State of the Union.
Jimmy Carter (1977–1981): The peanut farmer and ex-governor from Georgia served as president during an energy crisis. Perhaps because of that pressure, he was an everything-is-on-the-table orator at the State of the Union. He mentioned solar power in his 1979, 1980 and 1981 speeches, but his final address in 1981 encouraged “multiple forms of energy production — coal, crude oil, natural gas, solar, nuclear [and] synthetics.”
Ronald Reagan (1981–1989): While Reagan’s statement about protecting the environment teased a forward-looking attitude, it was simply that, a tease. To the extent the former Hollywood actor talked about energy in any detail, he was focused on deregulating industries to make carbon-based fuels such as natural gas easier to extract.
George H.W. Bush (1989–1993): If you were to read the elder Bush’s lips at the State of the Union, you might think an environmental agenda — at least clean air — was top-of-mind. In his first speech in 1989, he declared: “If we’re to protect our future, we need a new attitude about the environment. We must protect the air we breathe.” He mentioned the desire for a “clean environment” the following year, and, in 1991, he called for applying “the creativity of the marketplace in the service of the environment, for clean air.”
Bill Clinton (1993–2001): Clinton brought the term “climate change” into the State-of-the-Union lexicon. While he first mentioned the impact of greenhouse gases on the climate in 1997, the following year he directly proclaimed: “Our overriding environmental challenge tonight is the worldwide problem of climate change, global warming, the gathering crisis that requires world action.” In 2000, during his final State of the Union, he promised, “we will reverse the course of climate change and leave a safer, cleaner planet.”
George W. Bush (2001–2009): Like his father, Bush the younger also addressed the environment. In 2001, he said in his first speech: “We can produce more energy at home while protecting our environment, and we must … We can promote alternative energy sources and conservation, and we must.” He received applause the following year when he said he’d work for “a cleaner environment.” In fact, he mentioned supporting environmentally responsible energy in every one of his State of the Union addresses.
Barack Obama (2009–2017): Perhaps more than any president, Obama stumped for clean energy when given the stage at the State of the Union. He referenced solar power in all eight of his State of the Union addresses. And while he did say nuclear, coal and natural gas needed to be part of the energy discussion in his 2011 remarks, he also used that speech to call for 80 percent of American energy to come from “clean energy sources” by 2035.
Donald Trump (2017–2019): After his “clean coal” statements at his second State of the Union, maybe the best an environmentalist can hope for is as little as possible on the topic. At his first address in 2017, he offered one line on energy: “We’re going to stop the regulations that threaten the future and livelihood of our great coal miners.”
The upshot of a half-century of State of the Union environmental rhetoric is that these speeches are a signal — but not a resolute commitment — to implement policy. As a result, whatever Trump has to say, the environmental movement should listen but not take anything too much to heart. The real work is done away from the glare of these big events.