Former President George W. Bush speaking at Charleston Air Force base on October 28, 2006.

Former President George W. Bush speaking at Charleston Air Force base on October 28, 2006.

After President Donald Trump’s election, environmental activists across the country feared the worst. He had promised to cancel the Paris agreement, shrink the EPA, rescind the Clean Power Plan, revive the coal mining industry, scrap wetland protection rules, and tweeted in 2012 that global warming was a Chinese hoax. As partisanship over energy and environmental policy has grown––especially with regards to combating climate change––the approach of the previous Republican White House’s to environmental policy may be worth a deeper look. While the Trump administration’s environmental policy actions so far may appear quite similar to those of the second Bush administration’s, Bush increasingly prioritized environmental protection as his second term progressed. Given that Bush at least nominally professed an interest in environmental progress however, such a turnaround seems unlikely at best during the current administration.

The last ten months have clearly established the White House’s prioritization of economic development and growth over combating climate change and generally protecting the environment. In an effort to reallocate government spending, the Interior Department’s Office of Surface Mining halted studies of the health effects of mountaintop-removal coal mining. Additionally, the moratorium on new coal mining on federal land was lifted, putting policy behind the President’s promise to end the “war on coal.” Part of the environmental lobby’s uproar following EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt’s decision to repeal Gina McCarthy’s signature Clean Power Plan centered around the EPA’s public health cost-benefit analysis. Its proposal assumed that fine particulate matter levels below National Ambient Air Quality Standards posed no health hazard, a claim substantiated by little scientific evidence.

Trump’s skepticism of climate science and the notion of climate change before and during the campaign trail have been more than adequately documented. His nominations for key environmental positions in the White House have reflected an agenda of climate denialism––Kathleen Hartnett White, the Chair of the Council of Environmental Quality, and Administrator Pruitt both doubt the impact of human activities on global warming. This underlying perspective explains the President’s criticism that the Paris Agreement “disadvantages American workers and taxpayers.”

While President Trump’s platform so far may have confirmed worst-case scenario projections for environmentalists, it is worth noting that many of the current administration’s policies are similar to those of President Bush. The Bush administration actively approved and supported the mountaintop coal mining that prompted the local health studies by the Obama administration. Just as Trump rejected an international framework signed by his predecessor, Bush, soon after taking office, opposed and exited the landmark 1997 Kyoto Protocol signed by Clinton. Bush partly supported the decision to not implement the Kyoto Protocol (which was non-binding because the Senate never ratified it) by casting doubts on climate science as it stood in 2001. In 2004, renowned NASA scientist James Hansen accused the White House of blocking data documenting rising global temperatures, confirming a position of climate denialism.

However, in the waning days of his second term in office, Bush seemed to make a quick U-turn on environmental policy. Somehow, the United States, the only industrial nation to reject the Kyoto Protocol, acquiesced to negotiating a new global treaty on curbing greenhouse gas emissions at COP 13 in Bali in 2007. The oft-forgotten, resulting Bali Action Plan served as a political tipping point—major developing countries finally promised future emissions reductions and present parties produced a rough outline of future negotiations connecting both developed and developing nations. The plan helped lay the groundwork for the Paris accords. Furthermore, two weeks before the end of his second term, Bush set aside 200,000 square miles of the Pacific Ocean as national monuments, displaying a late commitment to ocean conservation.

Nevertheless, fundamental differences between the current and previous Republican administrations make the sort of environmental protective measures implemented by George W. Bush in the waning days of his administration unlikely to be replicated by the current administration. On the 2000 election campaign trail, Bush at least mentioned the idea of putting mandatory limits on carbon dioxide emissions, even if the promise was swiftly dispatched via his reiterated opposition to the Kyoto Protocol. Trump made no such promises and his energy platform focused on stimulating the domestic fossil-fuels sector. An executive order signed in April halted designation of new National Marine Sanctuaries or expansion of existing ones in an effort to expand offshore drilling. Such policy is a far cry from the sort of ocean conservation promoted by Bush during his last term.

Broadly, the Bush administration paid lip service to the notion of combating climate change, while the Trump administration condemns any such effort with gusto. Bush’s first EPA administrator, Christine Todd Whitman, recognized the dangers of global warming and even urged the President to seriously consider the importance of the Kyoto Protocol in the contemporary international climate policy environment. Conversely, Administrator Pruitt helped engineer the withdrawal from the Paris accord.

Climate skepticism was less overt during the Bush years—it had to be exposed by federal employees such as Hansen rather than being reinforced by the head of EPA. The radical shift in climate policy that helped produce the Bali Action Plan was partially based on the Democratic control of both Houses of Congress in 2007 and international pressure but was only possible because the administration previously nominally recognized global warming. After all, the plan did not set any strict global emissions targets but rather laid the groundwork for future negotiations. The current administration’s refusal to even mention climate change significantly lowers the probability for any policy shift in the near future.

Environmentalists need not despair, however. Unlike in the early Bush days, a majority of states now have renewable energy portfolios in place that will continue regardless of politics in Washington. The most ambitious states such as Maryland, New York, California, and Oregon have set targets of acquiring 20-50 percent of their power from renewables by 2030 or even earlier. Such policies, which were often adopted as a result of federal stasis on domestic standards under the Bush White House, may serve as a bulwark against a heavy rollback of federal regulations.

Trump’s energy and environmental platform is not unprecedented, but the president and his circle give even less priority to tackling climate change and protecting the environment than the Bush White House did. Chances for a policy shift like the one that happened under the previous Republican administration are slim.

Image Credit: U.S. Air Force / A1C Nicholas Pilch

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