An Earth Day Reminder of How the Republicans Have Forsaken the EnvironmentHistorians in the News
tags: Republican Party, conservatism, books, Earth Day, Environmental Protection Agency, Environmental policy, Anne Gorsuch
Today, as Earth Day turns fifty, it’s hard to imagine more dolorous circumstances for the occasion. covid-19 has forced online (or cancelled) virtually all the celebrations and protests that had been planned for the anniversary. The Trump Administration has barely even taken the day off from gutting the nation’s environmental regulations. (Last week, the Administration weakened rules governing the emission of mercury and other toxic chemicals from power plants; late last month, it weakened fuel-efficiency standards for cars and light trucks.)
Meanwhile, in Congress, environmental protection has become such a thoroughly partisan issue that across-the-aisle collaborations like Nelson and McCloskey’s are rarer than Amur leopards. Owing to this divide, environmental problems that have emerged since 1970 have simply gone unaddressed. Congress has not passed—or even really come close to passing—a single piece of legislation aimed at addressing climate change. (All the steps taken by the Obama Administration to try to curb carbon emissions were done through regulation.) Precisely at the “moment when such legislative action is most needed,” James Morton Turner, a professor at Wellesley College, and Andrew Isenberg, a professor at the University of Kansas, have written, it has become “almost politically unimaginable.”
How and why this happened is the subject of Turner and Isenberg’s recent book, “The Republican Reversal: Conservatives and the Environment from Nixon to Trump.” The two trace the G.O.P.’s turn against conservation to Ronald Reagan, who equated environmentalism with pessimism, and pessimism with a lack of patriotism.
Reagan combined a sunny faith in the future with an equally sunny indifference to facts. Running for President in 1980, he claimed that acid rain was not caused by power-plant and auto emissions, as scientists had shown, but by the eruption of Mt. St. Helens, in Washington State, earlier that year. Also during the campaign, he declared that “eighty per cent of our air pollution stems from hydrocarbons released by vegetation.” Once elected, Reagan appointed Anne Gorsuch—an inexperienced ideologue (and the mother of the future Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch)—to head the E.P.A. Among her first moves was to propose slashing the agency’s budget by more than forty percent. One staffer complained that morale was so low there was “no known scientific method to measure it.”
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