Guest Columnist Rutherford H. Platt: Republicans Abandoning the Planet

Guest Columnist Rutherford H. Platt: Republicans Abandoning the Planet

On Labor Day, 80 million people along the East Coast were under flash flood watch or warning, while an additional 50 million in six western states were under excessive heat warning. While parts of Georgia received “once in 1,000 years of rainfall,” Salt Lake City hit a record 103 degrees and Long Beach, California hit 108 degrees.

This week, Puerto Rico suffered intense flooding and power outages caused by Hurricane Flora – a repeat of Hurricane Maria in 2017. Meanwhile, 33 million Pakistanis fled their homes and villages as monsoons flooded an area the size of Virginia.

Climatologists and other informed observers are appalled at how quickly man-made climate change is driving a widening apocalypse of drought and water scarcity, extreme heat, wildfires, floods , sea level rise, food scarcity, insect-borne diseases, mental and physical illnesses and loss of biodiversity. 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 the disruption of a critical ocean current of the North Atlantic.

The United States is largely responsible for the climate crisis. We are the largest national source of past greenhouse gas emissions and today we account for 12.6% of annual global emissions, just behind China’s 32.4%. (Pakistan contributes just 0.5%.) Never has strong, united American leadership been more needed on climate change mitigation and adaptation. But ever since Donald Trump infamously pulled the United States out of the 2015 Paris climate accord, Republicans have sought to block any government authority to limit greenhouse gas emissions. (Of course, Republican governors aren’t shy about advocating for federal disaster assistance when weather disasters strike their states.)

The Biden administration quickly joined the Paris Climate Accord and reaffirmed the country’s commitment to cut U.S. emissions 50% below 2005 levels by 2030. After the withdrawal of its bill “Build Back Better,” negotiations between Democrats led to the enactment of the climate-focused “Cutting Inflation Act” without a single Republican vote in the House or Senate. Even for today’s GOP, it’s beyond perverse: If a wildfire threatens their home, do they lock up their kids and pour gasoline on the ground?

As the late Marty Nathan might have written, the Cut Inflation Act is not a panacea, but a crucial first step in jump-starting America’s 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 the face of 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 forests were recognized as critical carbon sinks, Roosevelt greatly expanded the areas of public land 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 a “Bureau of National Parks” to provide “good stewardship of these marvelous 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 Democratic-dominated New Deal, 40 House Republicans voted to support the Soil Conservation Act of 1935 signed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt as Midwestern dust storms darkened skies over Washington D.C. — perhaps the country’s first direct response to a climate catastrophe.

The Republican Eisenhower administration (1952-1961) was better known for its growth-stimulating 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 volume of proceedings (“Man’s Role in Changing the Face of the Earth”) proposed a roadmap for environmental initiatives over the next three decades.

An 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 the passage 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 1970s, Republicans helped drive a wave of new environmental laws. The February 2, 1970, cover of Time Magazine depicts environmentalist Barry Commoner with a trailer reading, “Environment: Nixon’s New Issue.” This referred to Nixon signing the National Environmental Policy Act on January 1, 1970.

Responding 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 time to influence the approval and design of these projects. NEPA received unanimous Senate approval and a 372-15 vote in the House with 164 Republicans supporting it. A year later, Nixon signed a series of amendments to the Federal Clean Air Act, which passed 73-0 in the Senate and 374-1 in the House.

In 1972, Nixon backed out of his “new question” and vetoed a gigantic federal water quality bill. The Senate voted 52 to 12 to override Nixon’s veto with 17 Republicans joining the majority and 19 others not voting. A different bill was approved by the House and after 10 months of wrangling, a joint conference bill was approved by the Senate unanimously and by the House by a margin of 366-11, dramatically improving the federal clean water law.

Building on a decade of bipartisan legislation on topics including resource recovery, noise control, coastal management, clean water, surface mining and toxic waste, Congress passed the “Superfund Act” (PL 96-510) to clean up abandoned hazardous industrial 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 a vote of 351 to 23. New Republican President Ronald Reagan agreed to allow his Democratic predecessor, Jimmy Carter, to sign the bill during a lame duck session on December 11, 1980.

In what turned out to be the coda 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 personal or family experience with disabilities). ADA has expanded the Civil Rights Act to encompass people with physical or mental disabilities. Its success in mandating physical accessibility has profoundly reshaped the country’s built environment. ADA passed in the Senate by a vote of 76 to 8 and in the House by unanimous consent. Signing the law on July 26, 1990, President George HW Bush, a Republican, said, “The Americans with Disabilities Act represents the full realization of our democratic principles, and it is with great pleasure that I enact it today.” 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 columns have educated and inspired so many of us. Rutherford H. Platt is Professor Emeritus of Geography at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and author of “Disasters and Democracy: The Politics of Extreme Natural Events.”


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