Op-ed by James Morton Turner and Andrew C. Isenberg
George H.W. Bush, who died Friday at age 94, was more than just a former Republican president. More importantly, he was the last moderate Republican president. Nowhere is the decline of the moderate Republican tradition Bush represented more apparent than on environmental issues.
As president between 1989 and 1993, Bush represented a Republican legacy of measured support for environmental regulation. Between 1970 and 1973, Richard Nixon, who was an early patron of Bush, signed into law the National Environmental Policy Act, Clean Air Act, and Endangered Species Act, and created the Environmental Protection Agency by executive order.
Ronald Reagan, whom Bush served as vice-president between 1981 and 1989, also had an early record on environmental support. As Governor of California between 1967 and 1975, Reagan expanded the state park system, killed dam and highway projects in scenic areas, and supported tough state air-quality laws. While in the White House, Reagan’s administration even led the negotiations that culminated in the Montreal Protocol of 1987, which committed the United States and other nations to an international agreement to reduce pollutants that were destroying the stratospheric ozone layer.
This is not to say that Republican support for environmental regulation was always robust. A Democratic Congress had to override Nixon’s veto of the Clean Water Act in 1972. While in the White House, Reagan often pushed hard to weaken federal environmental regulations and promote economic growth. Reagan’s first secretary of the interior, James Watt, vastly expanded the federal lands and off-shore waters open to fossil fuel exploitation. Reagan’s first director of the EPA, Anne Gorsuch, shrunk the agency, weakened regulations, and slackened prosecution of corporate polluters.
But during the 1988 presidential campaign, Bush described himself as “the environmental president,” and actively distanced himself from Reagan’s legacy. While Bush supported expanding fossil fuel development on public lands—including in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge—he also pledged to pass domestic legislation addressing acid rain and to use his vaunted diplomatic skills to address global warming.
Bush’s signature environmental achievement was reigning in acid rain. The Bush White House pushed vigorously for amendments to the Clean Air Act that included a novel cap-and-trade strategy, meant to reduce pollutants that caused acid rain while minimizing the costs of doing so. Detractors predicted the law would lead to a spike in electricity costs. Thanks to the law’s flexible market-based approach, which had been championed by the Bush administration, electricity costs in most states fell between 1990 and 2009. In 2010, the cost of the program was estimated to be $3 billion annually. Its annual benefits, derived mostly from reductions in asthma, heart attacks, and premature death was $108 billion due to related declines in particulate emissions.
Despite the resounding success of the Clean Air Act amendments, Bush could not — or would not — follow through on his campaign pledge to meet the “greenhouse effect with the White House effect.” Between 1990, when Bush hosted an international conference on climate change in Washington, and 1992, when world leaders met in Rio de Janeiro to forge an agreement to slow global warming modeled on the Montreal Protocol, Bush hedged his commitment. Largely out of concern for the potential economic costs and uncertain benefits, the Bush White House allowed only a watered-down international agreement in Rio that did not commit the US to reducing emissions.
In the twenty-first century, the measured approach of moderate Republicans like Bush has given way to a full-throated, conservative Republican repudiation of environmental regulation, which has culminated with the Trump administration. Trump has not only made little pretense of being an “environmental president,” he has called for eliminating the EPA, rolled back protections for the public lands, prioritized fossil fuel extraction, and dismissed climate change as a “hoax.” In so doing, Trump has merely echoed what an increasingly conservative Republican party, more beholden to fossil fuel interests, heedless of the concerns of scientists, and blindly committed to economic growth have been saying for years.
It is hard not to look back on George H. W. Bush’s approach to environmental policy, and the tradition of moderate Republican leadership which it represented, without a sense of loss. At its core was a belief that President Bush emphasized time and time again: “our ecology and the economy are interdependent.” Although today’s Republicans are paying it little heed, the most recent U.S. climate assessment warns that failure to act on global warming will cost the U.S. economy billions of dollars in the decades to come. It is a sharp reminder that we need Republican leadership, and the bipartisan cooperation it enables, on the environment more urgently now than ever — to ensure the future of the planet, to protect human health, and, not least, to safeguard the economy.