Guest columnist Rutherford H. Platt: Republicans abandon the planet

On Labor Day, 80 million people along the East Coast were under flash flood watches or warnings, while another 50 million in six Western states were under excessive heat warnings. The parts of Georgia received a “once in 1,000 -year rainfall,” Salt Lake City hit a record 103 degrees, and Long Beach, California reached 108 degrees.

Puerto Rico this week suffered intense flooding and power failures from Hurricane Flora — a replay of Hurricane Maria in 2017.

Climate scientists and other informed observers are aghast at how quickly human-caused climate change is driving an ever-widening apocalypse of drought and water shortages, extreme heat, wildfires, floods, sea level rise, food scarcity, insect-born disease, mental and physical illness, and loss of biodiversity. An article in Science (Sept. 9) warns that the planet will soon pass several irreversible “tipping points” including collapse of the Greenland and West Antarctic ice sheets, thawing of Arctic permafrost, and disturbance of a critical North Atlantic ocean current.

The United States is primarily responsible for the climate crisis. We are the largest national source of past greenhouse gas emissions and today account for 12.6% of annual global emissions, second only to China’s 32.4%. (Pakistan contributes a mere 0.5%.) Never has strong and united American leadership been more needed on climate mitigation and adaptation. But since Donald Trump infamously withdrew the US from the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement, Republicans have sought to block any governmental authority to limit greenhouse gas emissions. (Of course, Republican governors do not hesitate to plead for federal disaster assistance when climate disasters strike their states.)

The Biden administration promptly rejoined the Paris Climate Agreement and reaffirmed the nation’s commitment to reduce US emissions to 50% below 2005 levels by 2030. Following withdrawal of its centerpiece “Build Back Better” bill, among negotiations Democrats led to enactment on Aug. 17 of the climate-focused “Inflation Reduction Act” without a single Republican vote in the House or Senate. Even for today’s GOP this is beyond perverse: If a wildfire threatens their home, do they lock up their children and pour gasoline on the floor?

As the late Marty Nathan might have written, the Inflation Reduction Act is no panacea but is a crucial first step in jump-starting US response to the climate crisis. Rather than dissecting the act however, I will reflect on the rich heritage of Republican leadership and bipartisan cooperation in confronting 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 recognition of forests as critical carbon sinks, Roosevelt vastly expanded areas of public lands 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 1906 Antiquities Act.

His Republican successor, William Howard Taft, proposed a “Bureau of National Parks” 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 to support the Soil Conservation Act of 1935 signed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt as Midwest dust storms clouded the skies of Washington DC — perhaps the nation’s first direct response to a climate disaster.

The Republican Eisenhower administration (1952-1961) was more noted for growth-stimulation programs like the Interstate Highway System and urban renewal than for resource conservation. But in 1955, a symposium of eminent scientists and urban planners challenged complacency about “growth:” Its proceedings volume (“Man’s Role in Changing the Face of the Earth”) offered a roadmap for environmental initiatives over the next three decades.

One immediate response was the National Outdoor Recreation Resources Review Act, signed by Eisenhower on June 28, 1958. Under the chairmanship of Republican philanthropist Laurance Rockefeller, the “ORRRC Study” led to adoption of the Land and Water Conservation Fund Act of 1964 to provide federal grants for outdoor recreation and open space conservation.

In the 1960s and 70s, Republicans contributed to a wave of new environmental laws. Time Magazine’s Feb. 2, 1970 cover portrayed the ecologist Barry Commoner with a trailer reading: “Environment: Nixon’s New Issue.” This referred to Nixon’s signing of the National Environmental Policy Act Jan. 1, 1970.

Responding to a decade of environmental battles over highway, airport, and waterway projects, the act required federal agencies to evaluate and publicize the environmental impacts of proposed federal decisions in time to influence the approval and design of such projects. NEPA received a final approval in the Senate, and a vote of 372-15 in the House with 4 Republicans supporting it. A year later, Nixon signed a set of amendments to the Federal Clean Air Act, adopted by 73-0 in the Senate and by 374-1 in the House.

In 1972, Nixon retreated from his “new issue” and vetoed the mammoth federal water quality bill. The Senate voted 52-12 to override Nixon’s veto with 17 Republicans joining the majority and another 19 not voting. A different bill was approved by the House and after 10 months of wrangling, a different bill was approved by the Senate jointly and by the House by a margin of 36-11, greatly improving the Federal Clean Water Act.

Building on a decade of bipartisan legislation on such topics as resource recovery, noise control, coastal management, drinking water, surface mining, and toxic wastes, Congress adopted the “Superfund Act” (PL 96-510) to remediate abandoned industrial hazardous waste sites like the infamous Love Canal near Niagara, New York. After intense negotiations, the Senate passed the bill by voice vote and the House by 351-23. The incoming Republican President Ronald Reagan agreed to allow his Democrat predecessor Jimmy Carter to sign the bill in a lame duck session on Dec. 11, 1980.

In what proved to be a coda to nearly a century of bipartisan environmental and public health politics, 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). ADA expanded the Civil Rights Act to embrace persons with physical or mental disabilities. Its success in mandating physical accessibility has profoundly reshaped the nation’s built environment. The adoption was adopted in the Senate by a vote of 76 and in the House by consent. In signing the law on July 26, 1990, President George HW Bush, a Republican, declared: “The Americans with Disabilities Act represents the full flowering 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 educated and inspired so many of us. Rutherford H. Platt is a Professor of Geography Emeritus at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and author of “Disasters and Democracy: The Politics of Extreme Natural Events.”


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