BP (NYSE:BP) has had its share of bad press lately. There was the explosion at its refinery in Texas that killed 15 workers last year, and the more recent fiasco of the corroding pipeline that spilled thousands of gallons of oil onto the frozen tundra of Alaska's Prudhoe Bay. Given all this, one might automatically want to send off BP CEO John Browne, who announced his retirement earlier today, with a reiteration of these infamous words: "Brownie, you're doing a heckuva job."

President Bush, of course, said those words to ill-fated FEMA director Michael Brown during the chaotic aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. As the aforementioned setbacks and problems at BP attest, there might be some poetic justice in the comparison of John Browne to Michael Brown. But when one reviews Browne's overall tenure as BP CEO since 1995, I believe he does deserve a legitimate pat on the back for a job well done.

To begin, Browne proved himself a steady and reliable leader and presided over a healthy increase in BP's ADR share price from $20 in 1995 to today's price of $64. Under his stewardship, shareholders have also seen additional value in the form of dividends and a sizeable stock repurchase plan.

The real reason that I believe Browne deserves praise, though, is because he was one of the first CEOs of a truly large company -- and the first oil executive -- to recognize and acknowledge the growing danger of global climate change.

Unlike ExxonMobil (NYSE:XOM), which is better known for funding a number of questionable scientific studies to bolster its claim that the science of global climate change is unsound, Browne admirably funded rigorous research at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and then had the courage and conviction to act on that information when it was presented to him and his company.

Moreover, Browne put his company's money where his mouth was. Over the past few years, he committed BP to investing $8 billion in its Alternative Energy Division, a group that is investing in solar, wind, and hydrogen power. Browne was even successful in stabilizing and ultimately reducing emissions from BP's own operations by 10% (below 1990 levels).

Yes, the refinery explosion and the Prudhoe Bay spill are tragic, but I think history will be far kinder to John Browne than it will to Michael Brown. This is because of Browne's proactive position in response to the emerging threat of global climate change.

It is largely as a result of his efforts that so many of today's leading companies, like Chevron (NYSE:CVX), Duke Energy (NYSE:DUK), Wal-Mart (NYSE:WMT), and FedEx (NYSE:FDX), are now stepping up with their own environmental initiatives.

And why are they doing it? Because they took John Browne at his word when he said he wanted BP to stand for the words "Beyond Petroleum," and that there was money to be made by being environmentally responsible. That's not a bad legacy.

Brownie, you've done a heckuva job.

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Fool contributor Jack Uldrich likes all brownies, especially the kind his mom makes. He doesn't own stock in any of the companies mentioned in this article. Duke Energy is an Income Investor pick, FedEx is a Stock Advisor pick, and Wal-Mart is an Inside Value selection. The Fool has a strict disclosure policy.