Watch for frequent updates!

Yale 62

Republicans Abandon The Planet

By Rutherford H. Platt
This opinion column first ran in the Daily Hampshire Gazette, Print Edition: September 24, 2022

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. As parts of Georgia received a “once in 1000 year rainfall,” Salt Lake City hit a record 103 degrees F. and Long Beach, CA reached 108 F. Puerto Rico this week suffered intense flooding and power failures from Hurricane Flora––a replay of Hurricane Maria in 2017. Meanwhile, 33 million Pakistanis have fled their homes and villages as monsoons have flooded an area the size of Virginia.

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 (September 9, 2022) 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 substantially 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 U.S. 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 U.S. emissions to 50 percent below 2005 levels by 2030. Following withdrawal of its centerpiece “Build Back Better” bill, negotiation among Democrats led to enactment on August 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 U.S. response to the climate crisis. Rather than dissecting the act however, I will use the remaining space to 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, TR 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, forty 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 President 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 February 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 on January 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 unanimous approval in the Senate, and a vote of 372-15 in the House with 164 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 a 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 ten months of wrangling, a joint conference bill was approved by the Senate unanimously and by the House by a margin of 366-11, 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, sign the bill in a lame duck session on December 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. ADA was adopted in the Senate by a vote of 76-8 and in the House by unanimous consent. In signing the law on July 26, 1990, President George H. W. 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 Mitch McConnell and Kevin McCarthy? OUR HOUSE IS ON FIRE.

This column is dedicated to the late Dr. Marty Nathan whose Gazette columns educated and inspired so many of us.

The writer is a Professor of Geography Emeritus at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst and author of Disasters and Democracy: The Politics of Extreme Natural Events.


We welcome your comments below.

7 comments to Republicans Abandon The Planet

  • Bill Weber

    Rudd, Thanks for a great essay on such a vital issue. Your comments on Ted Roosevelt were so appropriate and I wish we had leaders and visionaries like him today. Bill Weber

  • Larry Price

    In his polemic, Rudd makes the statement: “The United States is substantially responsible for the climate crisis.” But that statement is belied by the follow-on statement: “…[We} today account for 12.6% of annual global emissions, second only to China’s 32.4%.” Left unsaid is the fact that over the last decade and a half, our emissions have been falling, while China’s have been advancing rapidly. The true culprit is obvious: China.

    Under the circumstances, rejoining the Paris Climate Agreement is an empty gesture, since that Agreement provides no constraints for China. And the very costly efforts that we make in this country are also empty gestures since any savings here are quickly and easily offset by China.

    The predictions of the Climate set have often been overstated. I suspect that continues to be the case. We had better hope so for otherwise, China is going to leave us (or at least our descendants) with a very unpleasant planet.

  • Ken Merkey

    Why is it that liberal academics cannot avoid mixing scholarship and politics.

    They attempt to write a scholarly paper and then start to blame conservatives or Republicans for whatever egregious outcome they are protesting. By so doing, they lose half of the populations’ interest. Rudd’s hatred of Trump simply cannot be suppressed. It shows up in every one of his papers that I have read. Is he suggesting that liberals and Democrats are blameless?

    Why would Biden stop all drilling in the USA and then allow Chevron to drill in Venezuela? This really is a double whammy. We are exporting jobs and at the same time propping up a terrible dictator. Killing the Keystone pipeline was an awful mistake. We are presently importing 800,000 barrels a day of oil (some of it from Putin). Keystone would have delivered the same amount of oil without the use of diesel ships, trains, and trucks to move it.

    I would have hoped that Rudd would provide some positive, constructive solutions. Instead, he, like most liberals, believes that the solution is more regulations. Until the USA adopts a nuclear power program just as several other counties have already done, we are stuck with fossil fuels. Renewables are not going to get us there.

  • Rutherford H Platt

    To Ken Merkey,

    Actually most of the column reviews the positive actions and leadership of Republicans of my parents’ day and back to Teddy Roosevelt. My Dad, a natural history writer and self-trained botanist, was a Hayes/Taft Ohio Republican; my Mom, a New Yorker through and through, was a John Lindsay “Liberal Republican” I well remember going to Eisenhower rallies at Madison Square Garden with tickets provided by a classmate, a son of Herbert Brownell. My Dad lived to see the beginning of environmentalism under Nixon which he applauded. But the Republican Party would have appalled him today — not just Trump but the whole crowd of fawning election and climate deniers — fortunately now disgraced.

    As I wrote, denying human-caused climate change is tantamount to locking up your children and pouring gasoline on the floor in the path of an approaching wildfire. How dumb can they get? (PS I agree that nuclear needs to be revived as France is doing)

    To Larry Price,

    I agree that China is a major culprit and adding more coal plants all the time. Does that give the World’s Leading Democracy (namely US) an excuse not to lead on responding to the climate crisis?? Does dangerous driving by someone else allow other drivers to abandon the rules of the road — even as tightened in response to new perceptions of hazard like pedestrian crosswalks and bike lanes.

    Actually I have read that the Chinese may be outflanking us in the solar panel industry and other sustainable technology. Perhaps others are more familiar with that than myself.

    Rud Platt

  • Ken Merkey

    Why, then, would you label your paper “Republicans Abandon the Planet?”

  • Larry Price

    Rud, China is not a “major culprit”; it is THE culprit. Does that give us an excuse “not to lead on responding?’ Perhaps it does. Particularly when no one seems to be following our leadership. If we in this country, through great sacrifice and at great cost, cut our emissions in half, China could offset that with a 20% increase in their own emissions. That is an exercise in total futility. What is the payoff for us for making that sacrifice and bearing those costs? Virtue is not supposed to be its own reward.

    To use your metaphor of driving, as any driver on the New Jersey Turnpike can attest, if the actual speed is 85 miles per hour, the driver who honors the 65 MPH limit accomplishes nothing and actually creates a hazard for both himself and for others.

  • Anthony Carbone

    It is not fashionable nor productive to question the popular orthodoxy on climate change as represented in classmate Platt’s opinion column. However, for those that are somewhat curious about an opposing point of view, I recommend you put Steven E. Koonin’s book “Unsettled – What Climate Science Tells Us, What It Doesn’t, and Why it Matters” on your reading list. Koonin is totally apolitical on the subject and provides the reader with a basis for a more nuanced view on this latest ‘existential threat to our planet”. At the very least, you will sleep better at night knowing that the human race is not headed for extinction any time soon.