It’s not too late to ‘go green’ in changing climate of Washington
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Science tells us that every action produces an equal and opposite reaction. Is this as true in the political world as it is in the physical world? If so, what reactions might we see come from the tumult coming from reports that President Trump will withdraw from the Paris climate agreement?

Here is one place to watch: Every environmental law since the Nixon administration has been enacted with bipartisan leadership, and typically when the Republican brand has been dominant and damaged. During these times, leading Republicans have distinguished themselves by advancing the ball on bipartisan environmental policy.

Richard Nixon himself established the pattern. Offsetting his own hawkishness in Vietnam, he captured the environmental fervor that gave us the first Earth Day and pre-empted his presumed Democratic challenger, Ed Muskie, by supporting the National Environmental Policy Act, the Clean Air Act and the establishment of the Environmental Protection Agency.

Republicans in Congress went even further, helping to override Nixon’s veto of the Clean Water Act, and then, after Watergate, enacting laws to protect drinking water, regulate toxic chemicals and manage solid waste. 

Ronald Reagan appointed anti-regulatory activists to run the EPA and Department of the Interior, then slashed their agencies' budgets. When this played poorly in the court of public opinion, Reagan recruited an environmental champion to run the EPA, while Congress, including the Republican Senate, enacted tough hazardous waste management, clean-up and disclosure laws.

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George H. W. Bush, distancing himself from Reagan’s lingering anti-environmental reputation during his presidential campaign, toured the polluted Boston Harbor both to chide Democratic rival Mike Dukakis and to announce his own desire to be “the environmental president.” Once in office, Bush indeed wrote and pushed through a landmark revision of the Clean Air Act, including a market-based policy for fighting acid rain.

 

Newt Gingrich started his time as House Speaker by attacking environmental regulations and the EPA’s budget. President Clinton shut down the government rather than go along with that and other demands, and the public sided with him. To protect his fellow Republicans and rehabilitate the party’s brand, Gingrich then gaveled through strong pesticide and drinking water laws.

George W. Bush kicked off his presidency by breaking his campaign promise to regulate carbon emissions from power plants, denying the need for a global climate treaty, and hamstringing his conservationist EPA chief. Sen. John McCainJohn Sidney McCainControversial Trump judicial nominee withdraws Trump vows to hold second meeting with Putin Ex-Montenegro leader fires back at Trump: ‘Strangest president' in history MORE (R-Ariz.) responded by writing the first serious climate bill and forcing debate on it. By 2005, 12 Senate Republicans supported mandatory climate action, and by 2008, Bush himself was signaling openness to it. 

Unfortunately, the Democrats neglected to pass McCain’s bill on Bush’s watch. Instead, they waited until Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaEx-White House stenographer: Trump is ‘lying to the American people’ Trump has the right foreign policy strategy — he just needs to stop talking The Hill's 12:30 Report — Trump faces bipartisan criticism over Putin presser, blames media for coverage MORE came to office, squeaking their climate bill through the House on a partisan vote, only to see it die in the Senate — a virtual repeat of the failed attempt by Bill ClintonWilliam (Bill) Jefferson ClintonDem senator ties Kavanaugh confirmation vote to Trump-Putin controversy Don't place all your hopes — or fears — on a new Supreme Court justice Why did it take so long for Trump to drain the swamp of Pruitt? MORE to enact Al GoreAlbert (Al) Arnold GoreAl Gore warns of 'ominous' record-breaking heat Colbert to Kennedy on retirement: Don't tell me your mind's going because 'you never had one!' Budowsky: Obama remains AWOL for Dems MORE’s energy tax in 1993. Clinton’s and Obama’s mishaps illustrated the flip side of the pattern — just as it had been easier to pass environmental laws under a damaged Republican brand, it had proven much tougher under a damaged Democratic brand.

Since 2010, many Republicans have had to worry more about their primary elections than their general elections, risking their careers if they worked too closely with Democrats on challenging issues like climate change. Some observers seem to think this is a permanent condition, and not just the predictable political reaction to a hard-charging Democratic president. The congressional and state elections in the next two years will be the best test of that. 

Meanwhile, Trump has called the scientific consensus on climate change a Chinese hoax, appointed an EPA chief who wants out of the Paris climate agreement, threatened EPA’s budget, attacked Obama’s climate program and supported the Keystone XL pipeline, among other things. The 200,000-person Peoples Climate March, held on a sweltering day this April — the second hottest April in the 137 years that records have been kept — suggests that Trump has managed to antagonize the highly-active pro-conservation constituency, making environmental protection a top political issue again.

The time when Republicans join again with Democrats in fighting for the environment may be rapidly approaching.

History still matters. That’s why forward-thinking conservatives have been building leadership on this issue by supporting legislation and forming working groups and caucuses focused on addressing a changing climate.

It is now time for them to seize the pen. There is still time to write a climate bill that uses the power of capitalism, rather than regulations, to drive the technological innovation needed to solve the problem. There is still time to write a climate bill that shrinks the size of government. There is still time to pass a conservative climate law.

Will the public reaction lead to congressional action? Stay tuned — the climate in Washington has been known to change quickly.

Manik Roy, Ph.D., is the president of Roy Climate LLC. Roy was previously the director of political assessment for the ClimateWorks Foundation and vice president for strategic outreach for the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions.


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