On Labor Day, 80 million people along the East Coast were under watch or flash flood warnings, while another 50 million in six western states were under severe heat warnings. With rain in parts of Georgia falling “once every 1,000 years,” Salt Lake City hit a record 103 degrees, and Long Beach, California, hit 108.
Puerto Rico this week suffered severe flooding and power outages from Hurricane Flora – a repeat of Hurricane Maria in 2017. Meanwhile, 33 million Pakistanis fled their homes and villages as monsoons inundated an area the size of Virginia.
Climate scientists and other informed observers are aghast at the speed with which human-caused climate change is leading to a widening apocalypse of drought and water shortages, extreme heat, wildfires, floods, sea level rise, food scarcity, and foodborne diseases. Insects, mental and mental illnesses. Physical illness and biodiversity loss. An article in Science (September 9) warns that the planet will soon pass several irreversible “tipping points” including the collapse of the Greenland and West Antarctic ice sheets, the melting of Arctic permafrost, and disruption of the critical North Atlantic Current.
The United States is largely responsible for the climate crisis. We are the largest national emitter of past greenhouse gases and today account for 12.6% of annual global emissions, second only to China at 32.4%. (Pakistan contributes only 0.5%). There was no need for strong, unified US leadership in climate change mitigation and adaptation. But since Donald Trump badly pulled the United States out of the 2015 Paris climate agreement, Republicans have sought to block any government power to curb greenhouse gas emissions. (Of course, Republican governors don’t hesitate to call for federal disaster assistance when climate disasters hit their states.)
The Biden administration immediately returned to the Paris climate agreement and reaffirmed the nation’s commitment to reduce US emissions to 50% below 2005 levels by 2030. After withdrawing its key “Building Back Better” bill, negotiations among Democrats led to the law’s enactment on August 17 . Climate-focused “low inflation” without a single Republican vote in the House or Senate. Even for today’s Republican Party, this is far from harmful: If a wildfire threatened their home, would they lock up their children and pour gasoline on the floor?
As the late Marty Nathan wrote, the Anti-Inflation Act is not a panacea but a critical first step in catalysing the American response to the climate crisis. Rather than dissecting the law, I will reflect on the rich legacy of Republican leadership and bipartisan cooperation in addressing environmental challenges before robotic nihilism took hold today.
President Theodore Roosevelt – the quintessential “Progressive Republican” – personally launched the modern age of natural resource conservation. Long before forests were recognized as critical carbon sinks, Roosevelt greatly expanded the areas of public land that designated national forests and created the National Forest Service in 1905 to manage them. He also designated the first “National Monuments” including Muir Woods and parts of the Grand Canyon under the Antiquities Act of 1906.
His Republican successor, William Howard Taft, proposed the Office of National Parks to provide for “the proper management of those wonderful manifestations of nature” in Yellowstone and other designated parks. President Woodrow Wilson, a Democrat, signed the National Park Service Act of 1916 with bipartisan support.
Even during the Democratic-dominated New Deal, 40 Republican House of Representatives voted to support the 1935 Soil Conservation Act signed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt while dust storms in the Midwest blanketed Washington, D.C.’s skies—perhaps the country’s first direct response to a climate disaster.
The Republican Eisenhower administration (1952-1961) was noted more for stimulating growth programs such as the Interstate Highway System and urban renewal than for resource conservation. But in 1955, a symposium of eminent scholars and urban planners challenged the complacency of “growth”: the scale of its actions (“Humans’ Role in Changing the Face of the Earth”) provided a roadmap for environmental initiatives over the next three decades.
One immediate response was the National Outdoor Recreation Resources Review Act, which Eisenhower signed on June 28, 1958. Under Republican philanthropist Lawrence Rockefeller, the “ORRRC Study” led to the adoption of the Land and Water Conservation Fund Act of 1964 to provide federal grants for outdoor recreation outdoors and maintain open spaces.
In the 1960s and 1970s, Republicans contributed to a wave of new environmental laws. Time magazine’s February 2, 1970 cover photos environmentalist Barry Commoner with a trailer that reads: “Environment: The New Nixon Edition.” This refers to Nixon’s signing of the National Environmental Policy Act on January 1, 1970.
In response to a decade of environmental battles over highway, airport, and waterway projects, the law required federal agencies to assess and publish the environmental impacts of proposed federal decisions in a timely manner to influence the approval and design of such projects. NEPA gained unanimous approval in the Senate, and 372-15 votes in the House of Representatives with 164 Republicans supporting it. A year later, Nixon signed a set of amendments to the federal Clean Air Act, which were adopted by 73-0 in the Senate and 374-1 in the House.
In 1972, Nixon backed off his “new cause” and vetoed a massive federal water quality bill. The Senate voted 52-12 to override Nixon’s veto with 17 Republicans joining the majority and 19 others who did not vote. A different bill was approved by the House of Representatives and after 10 months of wrangling, the joint conference bill was approved by the Senate and House unanimously by a margin of 366-11, significantly improving the federal Clean Water Act.
Building on a decade of bipartisan legislation on topics such as resource recovery, noise control, coastal management, drinking water, surface mining, and toxic waste, Congress has adopted the “Superfinance Act” (PL 96-510) to treat abandoned industrial hazardous waste sites such as the Canal Notorious Love near Niagara, New York. After intense negotiations, the Senate passed the bill by voice vote and 351 to 23. Incoming Republican President Ronald Reagan agreed to allow his Democratic predecessor, Jimmy Carter, to sign the bill in a lame session on December 11, 1980.
In what has proven to be emblematic of nearly a century of bipartisan environmental and public health policy, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was co-sponsored in the Senate by Democrat Ted Kennedy and Republican Bob Dole (each with personal or family experience with people with disabilities). The ADA has expanded the Civil Rights Act to include people with physical or mental disabilities. Its success in enforcing physical access has profoundly reshaped the nation’s built environment. The ADA was adopted in the Senate by a vote of 76-8 and in the House of Representatives unanimously. Upon signing the law on July 26, 1990, President George H.W. Bush, a Republican, declared: “The Americans with Disabilities Act represents the full thriving of our democratic principles, and I am very pleased to sign it into law today.”
Do you listen to Mitch McConnell and Kevin McCarthy? Our house is on fire.
This column is dedicated to the late Dr. Marty Nathan, an environmental and social justice activist whose articles have taught and inspired many of us. Rutherford H. Platt is Professor Emeritus of Geography at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and author of Disaster and Democracy: The Politics of Extreme Natural Events.