On Labor Day, 80 million people along the east coast were under surveillance or warnings of flash floods, while another 50 million in six western states were under warning of excessive heat. Because parts of Georgia received “rain every 1,000 years,” Salt Lake City hit a record 103 degrees and Long Beach, California hit 108 degrees.
Puerto Rico this week suffered intense floods and power outages due to Hurricane Flora, a replica of Hurricane Maria in 2017. Meanwhile, 33 million Pakistanis have fled their homes and monsoons have flooded an area as large as the Virginia.
Climate scientists and other informed observers are amazed at how quickly human-caused climate change is driving an ever-widening apocalypse of drought and water shortages, extreme heat, fires, floods, sea level rise, food shortages, insect-borne diseases, mental and physical illnesses and loss of biodiversity. An article in Science (9 September) warns that the planet will soon pass several irreversible “hotspots” including the collapse of the Greenland and West Antarctic ice sheets, the thawing of Arctic permafrost and the disturbance of a critical ocean current. North Atlantic.
The United States is fundamentally responsible for the climate crisis. We are the largest national source of greenhouse gas emissions of the past and today account for 12.6% of global annual emissions, second only to 32.4% of China. (Pakistan contributes only 0.5%.) Never has strong and united US leadership been more needed in the area of climate mitigation and adaptation. But ever since Donald Trump infamous US withdrawal from the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement, Republicans have tried to block any government authority to limit greenhouse gas emissions. (Of course, Republican governors don’t hesitate to seek federal disaster assistance when climate disasters hit their states.)
The Biden administration promptly joined the Paris Climate Agreement and reaffirmed the nation’s commitment to reduce US emissions to 50% below 2005 levels by 2030. After the withdrawal of its central bill “Build Back Better” negotiations between the Democrats led to the entry into force on August 18. 17 of the “Inflation Reduction Act” focused on climate without a single Republican vote in the House or Senate. Even for today’s GOP this is beyond the perverse: if a fire threatens their home, do they lock up their children and pour gasoline on the floor?
As the late Marty Nathan may have written, the Inflation Reduction Act is not a panacea, but it is a crucial first step in kickstarting the US response to the climate crisis. Rather than dissect the act, however, I will reflect on the rich legacy of Republican leadership and bipartisan cooperation in addressing environmental challenges before today’s robotic nihilism took hold.
President Theodore Roosevelt – the quintessential “Progressive Republican” – personally launched the modern era of natural resource conservation. Long before the recognition of forests as critical carbon sinks, Roosevelt greatly expanded areas of public land designated national forests and established the National Forest Service in 1905 to manage them. He also designated the first “national monuments” including Muir Woods and portions of the Grand Canyon under the Antiquities Act of 1906.
His Republican successor, William Howard Taft, proposed a “National Parks Office” to provide “proper management of those wonderful manifestations of nature” in Yellowstone and other dedicated parks. President Woodrow Wilson, a Democrat, signed the National Park Service Act of 1916 with bipartisan support.
Even during the Democrat-dominated New Deal, 40 House Republicans voted in support of the 1935 Soil Conservation Act signed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt as Midwestern sandstorms clouded the skies of Washington DC – perhaps the nation’s first direct response. to a climate disaster.
The Republican Eisenhower Administration (1952-1961) was better known for growth-stimulating programs such as the Interstate Highway System and urban renewal than for conserving resources. But in 1955, a symposium of prominent scientists and planners challenged complacency about “growth”: the volume of proceedings (“Man’s Role in Changing the Face of the Earth”) offered a roadmap for environmental initiatives in the three subsequent decades.
An immediate response was the National Outdoor Recreation Resources Review Act, signed by Eisenhower on June 28, 1958. Under the presidency of Republican philanthropist Laurance Rockefeller, the “ORRRC study” led to the adoption of the Land and Water Conservation Fund Act of 1964 to provide grants. federal agencies for outdoor recreation and conservation of open spaces.
In the 1960s and 1970s, Republicans contributed to a wave of new environmental laws. Time magazine’s February 2, 1970 cover featured ecologist Barry Commoner with a trailer that read, “Environment: The New Issue of Nixon.” This was referring to Nixon’s signing of the National Environmental Policy Act on January 19. 1, 1970.
In response to a decade of environmental battles over highway, airport and waterway projects, the act required federal agencies to assess and publicize the environmental impacts of proposed federal decisions in time to influence the approval and design of such projects. NEPA received unanimous approval in the Senate and a 372-15 vote in the House with 164 Republicans backing it. A year later, Nixon signed a series of amendments to the Federal Clean Air Act, which was passed 73-0 in the Senate and 374-1 in the House.
In 1972, Nixon withdrew from its “new issue” and vetoed a giant federal water quality bill. The Senate voted 52-12 to overrule Nixon’s veto with 17 Republicans joining the majority and another 19 not voting. A different bill was passed by the House and after 10 months of wrangling, a joint conference bill was passed by the Senate unanimously and the House by a margin of 366-11, greatly improving the Federal Clean Water Act. .
Building on a decade of bipartisan legislation on issues such as resource recovery, noise control, coastal management, clean water, surface mining and toxic waste, Congress adopted the “Superfund Act” (PL 96 -510) to clean up abandoned hazardous industrial waste sites such as the infamous Love Canal near Niagara, New York. After intense negotiations, the Senate passed the bill by voice and the House with 351-23. Incoming Republican President Ronald Reagan has agreed to allow his Democratic predecessor, Jimmy Carter, to sign the bill in a lame session on December 1. 11, 1980.
In what proved to be the conclusion of nearly a century of bipartisan environmental and public health policies, the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) was co-sponsored in the Senate by Democrat Ted Kennedy and Republican Bob Dole (each with a personal or family experience with disabilities). The ADA has expanded the Civil Rights Act to embrace people with physical or mental disabilities. Its success in enforcing physical accessibility has profoundly reshaped the nation’s built environment. The ADA was adopted in the Senate with a vote of 76-8 and in the House unanimously. Signing the law on July 26, 1990, President George HW Bush, a Republican, declared, “The Americans with Disabilities Act represents the full bloom of our democratic principles and it gives me great pleasure to sign it into law today.”
Are you listening 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 columns have educated and inspired many of us. Rutherford H. Platt is Emeritus Professor of Geography at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and author of “Disasters and Democracy: The Politics of Extreme Natural Events”.