George H.W. Bush put environment above politics — we should too

The death of former President George H.W. Bush is cause to honor a man who made it possible for all Americans to breathe cleaner air. It also reminds us that partisan politics need not obstruct progress toward a healthier environment. 

The historic Clean Air Amendments of 1990 would not have happened without the leadership of the late president Bush. Together with Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell — “the two Georges” — the Bush administration and Congress took on the hard work of crafting legislation to update the Clean Air Act, building on its strengths and repairing weaknesses that had emerged since 1970. 

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In 1990, smog-choked American cities. Around the United States, 98 areas were violating clean air standards for ozone. Power plants and other industries emitted more than 23 million tons of sulfur oxides into the air each year, creating acid rain problems in the East. Toxic air pollutants were largely uncontrolled, and automobiles had still not met the reduction standards required in 1970.

The 1990 Clean Air Act Amendments changed all this. Even measured against a tighter standard, today only 52 areas exceed the standard, 39 of these just barely. Sulfur oxide emissions have decreased by almost 90 percent, toxic air emissions have declined by 68 percent, and automobile pollution has dropped dramatically. This all happened even though our Gross Domestic Product has almost doubled, we drive 50 percent more mile, and our population has grown by a third. It produced cleaner air, more mobility and a stronger economy — not bad for bipartisan collaboration.

We still face daunting challenges. Not every community has benefitted equally from cleaner air. Our changing climate brings greater health and economic risks from droughts, torrential rains, and rising seas. A growing world population requires new, renewable sources of energy along with sustainable sources of clean water and healthy food. Technology has provided amazing, cost-effective solutions to our clean air challenges, but we must do more to foster the innovations needed for a sustainable world.

The success of the 1990 Clean Air Act Amendments should nonetheless give us hope. They passed not because there was any lack of divisive issues or partisan positions. The amendments passed because people recognized they could address their own concerns only as part of a larger effort. They passed because thoughtful representatives acknowledged, in the face of compelling science, that the risks of inaction were greater than the risks of action. They passed because people were willing to compromise, keeping the perfect from becoming the enemy of the good. Most importantly, they passed because our country had leaders who placed the needs of the whole nation first.

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Bush was such a leader, along with such colleagues as EPA Administrator William Reilly, White House Counsel Boyden Gray, Sens. George Mitchell and Alan Simpson, and Reps. Henry WaxmanHenry Arnold WaxmanGeorge H.W. Bush put environment above politics — we should too Dems rally for Green New Deal FDA lets vaping flourish as it eyes crackdown on cigarettes MORE, John DingellJohn DingellOpening day of new Congress: Not always total joy The Hill's Morning Report — Presented by T-Mobile — Congress to act soon to avoid shutdown George H.W. Bush put environment above politics — we should too MORE and Phil Sharp. When I tell this story to my students, they can scarcely believe it. The only world they know is one where the environment has become a bitter, partisan wedge issue. 

This is a tragedy. If any concern can unite us, it is to make our planet sustainable for our children. Those of us who saw the 1990 Clean Air Act Amendments unfold need to keep repeating the tale. It tells us that progress is possible, that truly patriotic leadership can make good things happen, and that we, within our political system, are not hopeless victims but agents of transformative power.

Bush wanted to be “the environmental President.” History will give him credit as a good and faithful servant. We the people should honor that legacy by renewing our commitment to — and insistence on — leadership that aims at nothing less.

A. Stanley Meiburg served as acting deputy administrator for the Environmental Protection Agency from 2014-2017. He is the director of Graduate Studies in Sustainability at Wake Forest University.