On the first Earth Day, in April 1970, I was a high-school senior at a public school in the conservative suburbs of Atlanta. Classes were canceled, and we had hours of discussions of environmental issues capped by an assembly in which we heard a rousing speech from actor Hal Holbrook. A Republican candidate for governor of Georgia, Jimmy Bentley, had just attacked Earth Day, pointing out that it was being held on Vladimir Lenin’s birthday. But he lost his primary, and the idea that government needed to do something about rampant air and water pollution wasn’t terribly controversial. Richard Nixon’s White House picked up on a large and bipartisan swell of concern for the environment, and by the end of that year, Nixon combined a host of federal anti-pollution programs into a new Environment Protection Agency. He also proposed, and Congress approved by big bipartisan margins, a major overhaul of federal air-pollution standards (later known as the Clean Air Act), followed in 1972 by an equally sweeping water-pollution law (later referred to as the Clean Water Act).
It’s an oversimplification to say Republican support for environmental-protection efforts has gone steadily downhill from that point on. But it is clear we have reached a point when the ancient question of trade-offs between the environment and the economy elicits the kind of wildly disparate reactions from Democrats and Republicans characteristic of culture-war issues — even as growing evidence of climate change makes bipartisan action to prevent or mitigate the damage increasingly urgent. Gallup recently reported that there’s a record partisan gap:
Though Democrats and Republicans have long come down on different sides when considering the tradeoffs between economic growth and environmental protection, the gap between the parties has never been larger. Seventy-eight percent of Democrats, compared with 20% of Republicans, now believe environmental protection should be given the higher priority.
From 1984 to 1991, the parties expressed similar views on this matter, but by 1995 a divide became evident, which has since gradually expanded. At least half of Democrats have favored the environment over economic growth in all years of Gallup’s trend except during the economically challenged years of 2010 and 2011. Meanwhile, majorities of Republicans typically prioritized the environment from 1984 through 2000, but Republicans have not returned to that level since falling to 47% in 2001.
There have been several waves of anti-environmental sentiment roiling the GOP over the years, even as Democratic support for prioritizing the planet has steadily grown. In the 1970s a so-called Sagebrush Rebellion in the West mobilized conservative hostility to federal land-use policies that restricted development and displaced local control. Meanwhile, the rise of the Christian right in the South fed on conservative-Evangelical hostility to environmentalism as “pagan” and contrary to the biblical injunction for humans to exercise dominion over creation. Ronald Reagan, the conservative movement’s first conquerer of the Republican Party, reflected these trends in key appointments of property-rights activists to federal agencies responsible for the environment (notably, James Watt as secretary of the Interior and Anne Gorsuch, Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch’s mother, as EPA administrator).
But despite the Reagan administration’s hard-right turn on the environment, a 1988 Republican assessment of the years from Nixon through Reagan concluded that the public had definitively made environmental protection a permanent part of the landscape for both parties:
The feverish pitch of Earth Day 1970 passed, but the environmental movement did not go away. Instead, the drive for a cleaner environment became part of our national ethic. Now it is taken for granted, the best possible testimonial that progress is being made. Our nation’s thinking has changed. Endorsing growth without regard to the quality of that growth seems forever behind us.
It turns out that judgement was a bit premature. In 1995, when Republicans took control of the U.S. House for the first time since the early 1950s, House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who had once styled himself as an environmentalist, made reining in environmental enforcement by the Clinton administration a major priority, as the Washington Post reported at the time:
In his first major speech on the environment, delivered to the National Environmental Policy Institute (NEPI), a group of corporate executives and opinion-makers, Gingrich lashed out at the agency’s enforcement of every major environmental statute from the 1980 Superfund law, which governs the cleanup of toxic waste dumps, to the 1990 Clean Air Act, designed to reduce air pollution nationwide.
But public support for environmental protection, especially among suburban swing voters, was robust enough that it became one of Bill Clinton’s four key priorities in his counterattack against Gingrich. In the wake of the the 42nd president’s easy reelection in 1996, Time magazine reported on the Clinton team’s “key message”:
“Balancing the budget in a way that protects our values and defends Medicare, Medicaid, education and the environment.” So often was this mantra used that the team referred to it as simply M2E2.
The next big spasm of anti-environmental passion in the GOP accompanied the tea-party movement that tormented Barack Obama’s administration. Even prior to Obama’s election, the fiery hostility of Republicans in energy-producing states to bipartisan plans to cap greenhouse-gas emissions and set up a trading system for allocations made this an increasingly partisan issue. In 2009, former Republican vice-presidential nominee Sarah Palin penned an op-ed attacking Obama’s “cap and trade” proposal with the unsubtle headline “Drill, daby, drill.” The proposal subsequently died in the U.S. Senate in 2010 thanks to staunch GOP opposition. Soon thereafter, many Republicans began embracing an old John Birch Society conspiracy theory known as Agenda 21 that alleged a United Nations plot to stamp out capitalism via local land-use regulations on places like strip malls and golf courses.
By the time the GOP Establishment was overthrown by a development-mad real-estate tycoon named Donald Trump preaching a right-wing revolt against the “coastal elites” of both parties, Republican environmentalism was already on the ropes with various strains of climate-change denial becoming party orthodoxy. Trump campaigned in 2016 on a platform that included abolition of the EPA, though he satisfied himself with revoking environmental regulations, withdrawing the U.S. from the Paris climate-change accords, and putting into place appointees like EPA administrator Scott Pruitt, a former oil lobbyist who was forced from office after a brief but spectacularly scandal-plagued tenure.
Now maximum unapologetic exploitation of fossil fuels and rejection of climate-change actions have entered the MAGA canon along with the preemption of state laws and local ordinances that annoy energy companies and property holders. The Green New Deal proposed by progressive Democrats to address climate change is being treated by GOP opponents as full-on Marxism. And the modest down payment on climate-change investments contained in the 2022 Inflation Reduction Act were opposed by every single House Republican.
As unprecedented storms buffet the country every season of the year and evidence of irreversible climate change grows clearer, we can only long for the bipartisanship that surrounded that first Earth Day 53 years ago. Even Republicans forced by local circumstances to deal with the consequences of climate change (including Florida governor and likely 2024 presidential candidate Ron DeSantis) won’t admit or support doing anything about the obvious causes. Obama once vainly expressed the hope that the conservative extremism of the tea-party movement would abate and “the fever will break.” Instead, it’s gotten worse. And the set of highly polarized issues on which (as Senator Tim Scott puts it) Republicans believe “Joe Biden and the radical left” are planning to “ruin America” most definitely includes the environmental emergencies of the 21st century.
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