U.S. Policy on Contemporary Environmental Issues

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Where does the U.S. stand on today's environmental issues? Well, that's not always easy to answer. In this lesson, we'll examine general trends in U.S. environmental policy since 2000. Updated: 08/02/2021

Environmental Issues & the U.S.A.

Though still a young century, the 2000s have already seen a number of important issues come and go, each occupying the national attention for a time. One issue that has consistently held our collective focus, however, is the environment. Environmental issues are among the greatest domestic debates in the United States today. Interestingly, nearly everyone agrees that it's crucial that the U.S. have a strong environmental policy, but the country tends to be divided on what that means. In fact, when we break down the general trends of the last few decades, here's what emerges:

  • Outwardly, most politicians support strong environmental policies.
  • Enacting environmental policies has become deeply attached to partisan divides.
  • Partisanship focuses heavily on debates of regulation vs. free enterprise, as well as sources of energy.

So, what does all of this actually mean? Let's take a deeper look at U.S. environmental policies throughout the 21st century and find out.

The Rhetoric of Environmentalism

Let's be clear about one thing: Americans care about environmental issues. Or, at the very least, politicians believe they do. When we examine U.S. environmental policies since 2000, one of the first major trends that emerges is that nearly every major politician has striven to advance the idea that they're a champion of environmental issues. This stems back to the presidential election of 2000, in which George W. Bush (R) had to prove that he was as committed to maintaining a healthy environment as his opponent, Al Gore (D). Every president of the 21st century has claimed to have done more to support the health and well-being of the environment than his predecessor, and has attempted to make this part of a legacy that extends beyond his time in office.

Of course, not all of this is just rhetoric. The United States has been committed to not only domestic environmental policies but also to international ones since at least the 1980s. The U.S. still participates in a plethora of international treaties and agreements on everything from limiting pollution in major cities to fighting deforestation to eliminating the use of dangerous hull paints for ships. With each successive administration, the number of agreements that the U.S. participates in grows. It's clear that American politicians want the U.S. to be seen as a leader on an issue that's gaining global importance.

Promise Versus Practice

While environmental issues have been a major talking point for all U.S. presidents (and most members of Congress as well as state-elected officials), the records show that this rhetoric isn't always put into practice. In fact, every president of the 21st century has been criticized by environmental groups for either not doing enough or for flat-out seeking to undermine environmental health altogether.

President George W. Bush claimed that the country had to clean up the planet for future generations, but spent his time in office rolling back major safeguards meant to prevent major corporations from doing damage to the environment. President Obama preserved more lands than nearly any other president since Theodore Roosevelt, but was accused of not doing enough to guarantee their protection. President Trump claims to have done the most for the environment of any president, but was widely criticized for appointing leaders to top environmental agencies who actively supported anti-environmental policies. So, what's going on here? The struggle to maintain a consistent environmental policy between promise and practice has political dimensions to it, so let's take a closer look.


One of the key issues dividing promise and practice is the concept of regulation and, specifically, how much the federal government should be interfering with energy-producing corporations. Presidents Bush and Trump focused on deregulation, removing restrictions that impact the ability of coal and oil companies to extract resources from the land. These presidents claimed to still support the environment because they weren't actively destroying the ecosystem themselves; all they did was honor the values of limited government and allow America's industries the freedom to dominate economic markets and strive for energy independence. Both of these administrations have been heavily criticized for placing lobbyists for the coal and oil industries in top positions of environmental regulation industries.

The search for renewable energy is often caught up in debates on regulation.
Wind farm

By contrast, President Obama espoused the view that only regulation could force major corporations to behave in an environmentally responsible way. Obama's administration utilized regulatory policies to actively protect natural lands, promote air and water cleanliness, and search for forms of renewable energy. Because of his support of regulation and efforts to find new sources of energy, Obama's critics claimed he was trying to undermine the coal and oil industries and force the U.S. to accept a state-planned economy. Even Al Gore, candidate for the 2000 presidential election, was asked to prove that he wasn't too radical on environmental issues and that he wouldn't try to over-regulate and undermine American energy industries.

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