It may have seemed odd that President Trump released a dire federal report on climate change last month and then immediately dismissed it, declaring, “I don’t believe it.” But he had no choice. Like it or not, he was forced to make it public. It’s the law — a law signed in 1990 by our 41st president, George H.W. Bush.
“George H.W. Bush really was a visionary on climate,” said Monica Medina, who served as principal deputy undersecretary at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration under President Obama. “He understood that climate change was a risk to our health, to our prosperity and to our national security.”
As the nation comes together this week to mourn and honor the late president, who died Friday, there are many things to remember about him. Often overlooked is the fact that Bush was remarkably prescient in his concern about key environmental issues, particularly climate change. “Those who think we’re powerless to do anything about the greenhouse effect are forgetting about the White House effect,” he said in a 1988 presidential campaign speech.
Early in his presidency, his cabinet officials penned memos on their fears about climate change. “Global climate change is the most far reaching environmental issue of our time,” acting assistant secretary of state Richard J. Smith wrote in a 1989 memo. “If the climate change within the range of current predictions actually occurs, the consequences for every nation and every aspect of human activity will be profound.” These notes, released in 2015 by the National Security Archive, also demonstrate the Bush Administration’s deep worries about the depletion of the ozone layer.
“People are focusing on Bush’s humanity and kindness, his decency and the genteelness of the man, but it shouldn’t overshadow the fact that he made enduring breakthroughs in the policy area, and the one least noticed at all is in the environment,” said Norman Ornstein, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative Washington think tank. “When we look at Bush, it shows how much of a dramatic reversal there has been in science and fact and concern about climate conditions. For the Republicans, the issue now has become theological, meaning their position is one utterly resistant to facts on the ground.”
Bush wasn’t the first GOP president to champion the environment. Theodore Roosevelt enthusiastically promoted conservation, protecting hundreds of millions of acres of public land. Former president Nixon signed a myriad of environmental laws that ensured clean air and water, protected endangered species and marine mammals, and created the Environmental Protection Agency. “There was a long tradition of concerns over conservation going back to Teddy Roosevelt, and Bush came out of that tradition,” Ornstein said.
Fred Krupp, president of the Environmental Defense Fund, agreed. “He knew that our country matters far more than political party or personal ambition, and that the national interest demands that we protect America’s precious natural heritage,” Krupp said in a statement. “And he knew that there is no inherent conflict between environmental progress and economic progress, because the well-being of the nation requires both.”
The first President Bush was responsible for the Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990 which, according to a 2011 EPA study, prevented more than 160,000 premature deaths, 130,000 heart attacks and 86,000 emergency room hospital visits between 1990 and 2010. The study predicted tens of thousands more lives will be saved by 2020.
Bush also supported the Montreal Protocol, an international treaty aimed at phasing out substances that deplete the ozone layer. “The real push for it [in this country] came from the Clean Air Amendments,” said Medina, who edits Our Daily Planet, a newsletter about conservation and the environment. “What’s ironic is that during the 1992 presidential campaign, Bush mocked [former Vice President Al] Gore, calling him ‘Ozone Man’ — when he himself was responsible for implementing the Montreal Protocol, which led to the closing of the ozone hole. What Bush led us to do worked — and it proved we can adapt.”
To be sure, Bush’s environmental score wasn’t perfect. Although he put a moratorium on oil and gas drilling on both U.S. coasts — later extended by President Clinton — he excepted the Gulf of Mexico, perhaps a reflection of his prior oil industry interests. And he tried to reverse a ban on offshore drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, although Congress overruled him. “So he wasn’t 100 percent opposed to oil and gas drilling,” Medina said. “He was someone who tried to balance business and conservation, which has been the hallmark of Democratic presidents as well.”
Ornstein does not believe that Bush allowed his earlier business dealings to influence public policy. “Regardless of one’s background, when you are looking at reality, and you want to be intellectually consistent, you’re going to support policies that reflect what you see as real dangers,” he said.
The actions of the first President Bush — and GOP presidents who came before him — stand in stark contrast to the current GOP president, who is working to unravel environmental rules put into place by his predecessors. This, of course, evokes the inevitable comparisons.
“I think it’s tragic that President Trump is working so hard to undo all the great work of President Bush,” Medina said. “What he has been trying to roll back are some of President Bush’s most important achievements,” she added. “We already have learned that many of the things we have done have helped the economy. The jobs created by clean car rule, for example, far outnumber the jobs in the coal industry. He just doesn’t get what really makes America great.”
Marlene Cimons writes for Nexus Media, a syndicated newswire covering climate, energy, policy, art and culture.