As unintuitive as it might sound in the year 2020, Republicans were once, even at their most wretched, a party of environmentalism. It was none other than Richard Nixon who gave us both the Environmental Protection Agency and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
To answer the question of when Republicans made this hard pivot is easy: 1991, give or take. In 1991 there was no political disagreement about the environment among the US population. In 1992, there was.
What happened between 1991 and 1992 that completely destroyed 29 years of American environmental policy?
Profit Over Life
Starting in the late 1980s, logging companies and their political profiteers descended on the forests of Washington and Oregon to commence wholesale destruction for the sake of profit. The targeted forests happened to be occupied by the northern spotted owl, an endangered species under the 1973 Endangered Species Act.
There was wide public backlash as the Republican party found itself at odds with itself. In a spectacular feat of cognitive dissonance, Republicans placed themselves at odds between their environmental values and “logging jobs”, which is another way of saying “Republican politicians who had made deals with logging company owners, and now stood to lose a lot of money”.
The controversy was public, ugly, and Republicans found themselves under attack from not only their own ranks, but most of the civilized world.
Environmentalism was an ascendant topic all over the world. The once crowned princes of the natural world now found themselves in disgrace, outsiders in what they considered “their” conversation, now positioned as ruthless men who put greed before life on earth.
George H.W. Bush campaigned on climate science.
In his 1988 campaign speech, Bush said, “Those who think we are powerless to do anything about the greenhouse effect forget about the ‘White House effect.'”
“In my first year in office, I will convene a global conference on the environment at the White House,” Bush said at the Lake Erie Metropark in 1988, adding that he would invite the Chinese, the Soviets and officials from emerging economies.This is when the GOP turned away from climate policy – E&E News
“The agenda will be clear,” Bush said. “We will talk about global warming. We will talk about saving our oceans and preventing the loss of tropical forests. And we will act.”
Even as President Bush ratified amendments to the Clean Air Act, he dug in his heels on any attempts to collaborate globally on climate change. His administration pivoted to denialism and isolation. Why?
Much of the president’s administration at the time pushed for George H.W. Bush to be a world leader on climate change. But you have this Gríma Wormtongue character John Sununu, George Bush’s chief of staff, whispering in his ear that climate change is fake news.
Sununu was more interested in those who rejected the emerging climate science, including a number of researchers who have continued to battle against consensus science today. Some of them, including Pat Michaels of the Cato Institute, continue to have influence in the Trump administration and have encouraged the rollback of climate protections. Sununu ran his own rudimentary climate models and said that scientists were wrong.This is when the GOP turned away from climate policy – E&E News
While George Bush wasn’t completely ineffectual on climate, his presidential legacy is one of being pulled back and forth between scientists and environmental policymakers, and bad faith actors representing the wealthy. The first Bush administration was defined by “too little too late”, and set the stage for what happened next.
An Inconvenient Truth
On July 9th, 1992, presidential candidate Bill Clinton announced as his running mate a junior Senator from Tennessee, Al Gore. This announcement launched Gore into national prominence at a time when the Republican party was at its most beleaguered on the environment. Al Gore was an environmental activist in his own right, the Senator had recently published his opus Earth in the Balance and was prepared to put the environment back on the national agenda.
This should have delighted Republicans with an opportunity for redemption as participants and drivers in a new age of aggressive environmental policies. It did not.
The Republicans didn’t want aggressive environmental policies that they didn’t exclusively control. In the aftermath of the northern spotted owl debacle, it became clear that the Republican environmental agenda was driven by entitlement (to recreation and natural resources), rather than any moral connection to ecology. Republicans were losing their grip on exclusivity and control, and this fact unraveled the very sanity of their party.
John Sununu and the Cato Institute didn’t go anywhere. They recognized the threat that global participation and accountability would represent to their personal profits and those of their backers, and waged a decades-long campaign of misinformation that has shaped American politics to the point of apocalyptic disaster. But this article isn’t about why things are still bad, it’s why the Republicans walked away from the environment.
The Final Nail
So why did George H.W. Bush shit all over the heart of the 1992 Rio Climate Summit, balking specifically at the treatise concerning climate change and biodiversity? Treatise that, if enacted in 1992, might have averted much of our current catastrophic outlook?
Right-wing reactionaries of the day, acting on sentiment passed down by actors like Sununu and economic conservative thinktanks, promoted global environmentalism as a threat to U.S. national sovereignty, security, and domestic economy. This reactionism found itself everywhere in in Republican hierarchy by 1992 and whispered in George Bush’s ear even as he was called upon to commit the United States to being a world leader on climate change. George Bush proved unequal to his rhetoric and facing the 1992 presidential primaries, made the decision to cater to his reactionary base instead.
This is a narrative we’ve watched unfold for 29 years. While Americans might not be quite as riddled with manufactured partisan stupidity as you might think, there is still a large enough portion of the population that can’t process information about climate change that has enabled a complete institutional deadlock on meaningful progress.
In short, we’re going to run out the clock on climate disaster, and it’s for many of the reasons you might expect. Republicans view accountability as antithetical to the late-stage capitalism from which they profit. They don’t want us to agree to do anything that might hinder their ability to make money. Since they can’t argue this from science, they manufacture fear of the rest of the world and push isolationism and xenophobia to insulate themselves from oversight.
Your neighbors support this because they have their fears exploited by people who want to continue to extract and accumulate wealth unethically. They have trouble recognizing this because, again, their fears are constantly and irrationally stoked and exploited.
Republicans were our allies once, perhaps even our predecessors. Their most unhinged and unethical core, however, has poisoned their cognition for decades, making it unlikely that they will ever resume our struggle for climate justice in any meaningful way. They will likely continue to persist as resisters and saboteurs until they are finally swept away by the rising tides.
Header image: Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) being a deep fried goober about the Green New Deal.