The Once Common Republican Environmentalist Is Virtually Extinct
Environmental News

The Once Common Republican Environmentalist Is Virtually Extinct

Our corrupted American elections may well be the greatest environmental threat facing the planet. But if elections pose a threat, they also offer a possibility.

It may be that the most unsettling measure of our unsettling times is the way in which today’s Republicans are not only working to undo the progress that Democrats initiated with FDR’s New Deal and LBJ’s Great Society. Today’s GOP is also searching out and destroying the noble remnants of Richard Nixon’s lamentable presidency. The 37th president was not a good man. He was a crude political careerist who employed racially divisive “Southern strategies,” and engaged in such lawless electioneering and governing that he resigned just ahead of an impeachment vote. For all his flaws, however, Nixon knew which way the political winds blew. So, after millions of Americans celebrated the first Earth Day in 1970, the president turned green. Nixon signed legislation creating the Environmental Protection Agency that year. Then he approved groundbreaking clean air and clean water protections and, finally, in 1973, he signed the Endangered Species Act. With that last stroke of the pen, Nixon put in place what Friends of the Earth Action describes as “bedrock environmental law” and began a process of bipartisan improvements and expansions of the act that would eventually form what historian Kevin Starr referred to as “the Magna Carta of the environmental movement.”

Nixon wasn’t really an environmentalist. He just did what was popular. That was especially true with regard to the Endangered Species Act. Fifty years ago, Republicans generally wanted to be in the forefront of fights to save the planet—some for reasons of politics, like Nixon, but others out of sincere commitment, like Oregon Governor Tom McCall and Pennsylvania Representative and Senator John Heinz. Environmentalism was bipartisan. The Senate voted 92-0 for the measure, while the House approved it 390-12. Democrats were all on board for green legislation, as were almost all Republicans; liberals backed it, and so did conservatives. In the states, Republicans were often even more outspoken on environmental issues. California Governor Ronald Reagan—no liberal he—ruminated in his 1970 State of the State Address about “the absolute necessity of waging all-out war against the debauching of the environment.”

Five decades on, another Republican president is all about debauching the environment—so much so that, as we read on the front page of Tuesday’s New York Times, “The Trump administration on Monday announced that it would change the way the Endangered Species Act is applied, significantly weakening the nation’s bedrock conservation law and making it harder to protect wildlife from the multiple threats posed by climate change.”

What gives? Why is this more-Nixonian-than-Nixon president hell-bent on undoing Nixon’s environmental legacy? And why are Republicans in the House and Senate going along with him? That’s easy. Unlike the Republicans of the early 1970s, who still fretted about what voters might want, the Republicans of the 2010s—and presumably the 2020s—worry only about what special-interest lobbies want. “We are in the midst of an unprecedented extinction crisis, yet the Trump administration is steamrolling our most effective wildlife protection law,” says Rebecca Riley, the legal director of the nature program at the Natural Resources Defense Council. “This administration seems set on damaging fragile ecosystems by prioritizing industry interests over science.”

The industry interests did not win the deb

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