"Americans all across the country are already paying the cost of inaction. The question now is whether we will have the courage to act before it's too late."


When President Barack Obama unveiled his plan to address climate change, he joined a long list of presidents to address the environment. The centerpiece of his proposal is to be limits on carbon emissions; he also called for the U.S. State Department to judge the impact of the proposed Keystone Pipeline on greenhouse gas emissions before granting approval for the project.

Photograph by Charles Dharapak/AP

"Americans all across the country are already paying the cost of inaction. The question now is whether we will have the courage to act before it's too late."


When President Barack Obama unveiled his plan to address climate change, he joined a long list of presidents to address the environment. The centerpiece of his proposal is to be limits on carbon emissions; he also called for the U.S. State Department to judge the impact of the proposed Keystone Pipeline on greenhouse gas emissions before granting approval for the project.

Photograph by Charles Dharapak/AP

50 Years of Presidential Action on Climate Change

Barack Obama
Barack Obama

"Americans all across the country are already paying the cost of inaction. The question now is whether we will have the courage to act before it's too late."


When President Barack Obama unveiled his plan to address climate change, he joined a long list of presidents to address the environment. The centerpiece of his proposal is to be limits on carbon emissions; he also called for the U.S. State Department to judge the impact of the proposed Keystone Pipeline on greenhouse gas emissions before granting approval for the project.

Photograph by Charles Dharapak/AP
George W. Bush
George W. Bush

"Prosperity will mean little if we leave future generations a world of polluted air, toxic lakes and rivers, and vanished forests."


President George W. Bush proposed the Clear Skies Act in 2003, which would have replaced the Clean Air Act with new pollution-reduction efforts, most notably programs that would allow companies to trade emission limits among themselves. Critics said that the Clean Air Act was better for the environment, and Bush's legislation failed in committee.

Photograph by Luke Frazza/AFP via Getty Images
The Kyoto Protocol
The Kyoto Protocol

“The agreement is environmentally strong and economically sound. It reflects a commitment by our generation to act in the interests of future generations.”


In 1997, Bill Clinton negotiated the Kyoto Protocol, an international treaty that established global emissions-reduction goals. He signed it in November 1998, but the United States has yet to ratify the treaty because critics said that it would harm the American economy and did not require developing countries to make emission reductions.

Photograph by Wilfredo Lee/AP
The Clean Air Act of 1990
The Clean Air Act of 1990

“Among my first items on my personal agenda is the protection of America's environment. I am pledged to improving the quality of life, for improving the quality of the air we breathe and the water we drink and the land that, as Father O'Reilly said, God has entrusted to us.”


George H.W. Bush signed the Clean Air Act of 1990, which strengthened regulations that target acid rain and added new controls for airborne toxic pollutants.

Photograph by Rick Bowmer/AP
Ronald Reagan
Ronald Reagan

During Ronald Reagan's two terms, the president cut the budget of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, removed solar panels from the White House, and said that trying to reduce acid rain would hurt industry.

Photograph by Gene Forte/Central Press/CNP via Getty Images
The U.S. Department of Energy
The U.S. Department of Energy

“We simply must balance our demand for energy with our rapidly shrinking resources. By acting now, we can control our future instead of letting the future control us.”


In 1977, Jimmy Carter signed the Department of Energy Act, which created the U.S. Department of Energy and put it in charge of  handling nuclear materials, as well as energy conservation, among many responsibilities.

Photograph by Barry Thumma/AP
Richard Nixon
Richard Nixon

"Our national government today is not structured to make a coordinated attack on the pollutants which debase the air we breathe, the water we drink, and the land that grows our food. Indeed, the present governmental structure for dealing with environmental pollution often defies effective and concerted action. Despite its complexity, for pollution control purposes the environment must be perceived as a single, interrelated system."


In 1970, Richard M. Nixon created the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to monitor and enforce national environmental standards.

Photograph by Ron Galella/WireImage
The Great (Green) Society
The Great (Green) Society

“The air we breathe, our water, our soil, and wildlife are being blighted by the poisons and chemicals which are the by-products of technology and industry. The skeletons of discarded cars litter the countryside. The same society which receives the rewards of technology, must—as a cooperating whole—take responsibility for control.”


As part of his Great Society agenda, Lyndon B. Johnson signed several environmental acts into laws, including the Wilderness Act of 1964, which protects 9.1 million acres of land, and the Solid Waste Disposal Act of 1965, which improved waste disposal methods.

Photograph by AP
The Nuclear Test Ban Treaty
The Nuclear Test Ban Treaty

“These tests befoul the air of all men and all nations, the committed and the uncommitted alike, without their knowledge and without their consent. That is why the continuation of atmospheric testing causes so many countries to regard all nuclear powers as equally evil, and we can hope that its prevention will enable those countries to see the world more clearly, while enabling all the world to breathe more easily.”


John F. Kennedy's support for the Partial Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, which banned testing nuclear weapons in the air, on the ground, and underwater, was primarily a defense initiative, though he also touted its environmental impact.

Photograph by Charles Gorry/AP