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Don Paul: Climate, environment and George H.W. Bush

It is a bit of an understatement to proclaim that today’s Republican party is very different from George H.W. Bush’s Republican party on many issues. For this article, I will focus more on the narrower issue of the environment, including climate.

Bush did not originate the past Republican focus on the environment. That is credited to Richard Nixon, whose administration established the Environmental Protection Agency.

The EPA was not just eye candy for Nixon, either. He appointed a committed environmentalist attorney, William Ruckelshaus, to head the new agency. Under Ruckelshaus, even after an exhaustive seven-month administrative law hearing in which the EPA judge ruled DDT was not shown to be a human carcinogen (its efficacy, however, in the face of overuse and insect resistance was fading fast), Ruckelshaus overruled the judge. With Nixon’s support, he banned the use of DDT in the U.S. After Nixon later promoted Ruckelshaus first to acting FBI Director and then to Deputy U.S. Attorney General, Nixon replaced him at the EPA with another environmentalist attorney, Russell Train. Nixon’s EPA was for real.

The irony showing the other ominous side of Nixon came in the infamous Saturday Night Massacre. On that night, Nixon Attorney General Elliot Richardson and then Deputy Attorney General Ruckelshaus both resigned their positions rather than follow Nixon’s order to fire Special Prosecutor Archibald Cox during the Watergate crisis.

The Republican support of the EPA may have waffled from time to time in the ensuing years, but it continued overall during Gerald Ford and Ronald Reagan’s terms, as well as with Democrat Jimmy Carter in between. When George Bush came to the White House, that support strengthened.

Bush signed legislation he supported in 1990, establishing the National Climate Assessment. The Assessment sits atop a congressional mandate which brings 13 different federal agencies into play. The fourth edition of the Assessment was issued by the Trump administration on November 23. The release was required by law whether or not President Trump was supportive of it (he was not).

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Following establishment of the Assessment, Bush told the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, “We know the future of the Earth must not be compromised. We bear a sacred trust in our tenancy here and a covenant most precious to us — our children and theirs.”

During Bush’s term, the federal government stepped up its research on global warming and began establishing more likely estimates of how that warming would impact the country and the world.

Bush also supported the Montreal Protocol on drastically cutting the chlorofluorocarbons in spray can propellants and refrigerant, which were causing considerable damage to the ozone layer. The protocol has been very effective in reducing the damage. Peer reviewed studies show the Montreal Protocol to be among the most successful environmental agreements yet reached.

Sorry, but I cannot help to contrast President Bush’s vision with that of our current president in this official soundbite from his campaign.

Science takes an all too obvious back seat in this White House.

After a strong start on studying global warming, Bush came up short in one key area. He did not support an aggressive program to stabilize greenhouse gas emissions either through action or word. As William Reilly, Bush’s EPA Administrator told E&E News, via Scientific American: “Bush did everything anyone could have asked of on him on climate except commit to stabilization,” he said. “He committed [a] very substantial research budget to major investments by NASA on upper atmospheric ozone monitoring and on climate monitoring. NOAA was well-funded.”

Apart from his efforts in climate change, his greatest environmental accomplishments involved sponsoring vital amendments to the original Clean Air Act of 1970. That landmark legislation contained yawning gaps in specific hazards, closed by his amendments. As the EPA stated: “Building on Congressional proposals advanced during the 1980s, the President proposed legislation designed to curb three major threats to the nation’s environment and to the health of millions of Americans: acid rain, urban air pollution, and toxic air emissions,” the EPA states on its website. “The proposal also called for establishing a national permits program to make the law more workable, and an improved enforcement program to help ensure better compliance with the Act.”

The targeting of the pollutants leading to acid rain, which was killing millions of acres of forests and decimating life in lakes, brought this scourge under control.

But the criticism Bush received from environmental groups for not moving toward stabilizing greenhouse emissions convinced him, historians say, he was damaging his standing with his base. It appears, after the Clean Air amendments, he backed away from some of his environmental enthusiasm.

As in so many arenas in his one term, George Herbert Walker Bush left his mark on the United States' role in the global climate community. His work was flawed and incomplete, but it was substantial and has left a lasting legacy of rational environmental leadership that many say is completely missing in the executive branch today.

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