George H.W. Bush, who passed away on November 30, had pledged that he would be the "environmental president," and in many ways he delivered. As we remember his service to our nation on today's day of mourning, his environmental legacy deserves to be emphasized. He strengthened the Clean Air Act, arguably America's most important piece of environmental legislation, and was the first president to raise climate change as a major issue of concern for the federal government.
President Bush played a key role in making our air cleaner, and he did so using a novel mechanism, cap-and-trade, which harnesses the power of markets to reach environmental goals. Back in the late 1980s, when President Bush took office, the typical way of implementing environmental policy was through command-and-control mechanisms: the government would impose regulations or prohibit certain practices, and businesses simply had to fall into line. But George H.W. Bush, who had studied economics at Yale University, felt that setting goals and letting the market figure out how to best reach them would be more cost-effective.
In June of 1989, just six months into his term, President Bush tabled amendments to the Clean Air Act to improve air quality in U.S. cities, reduce U.S. emissions of ozone-depleting substances (the ozone hole over the Antarctic had been discovered in 1984), and tackle acid rain, which had become a pressing issue. Coal-fired power plants, mostly in the Midwest, were polluting the atmosphere with sulfur dioxide, which was leading to acid rain in the Northeast and mid-Atlantic, damaging forests and killing aquatic wildlife. Canada was particularly affected (sadly, air currents ignore international boundaries), and U.S.-Canada relations were suffering as a result. President Bush sought to cap the total quantity of sulfur dioxide that could be emitted, and reduce that cap over time.
Instead of imposing specific sulfur dioxide-reducing procedures and technologies on companies, President Bush proposed the creation of a national emissions market for utilities, in which they could buy and sell pollution rights. This gave them a strong economic incentive to reduce their emissions, which they did after the Clean Air Act amendments passed with overwhelming bipartisan support. As he signed them into law in November 1990, President Bush declared that "every city in America should have clean air." According to the Environmental Protection Agency, the Clean Air Act amendments will have delivered $2 trillion in economic benefits by 2020, far exceeding their compliance costs. Brian Mulroney, who was the prime minister of Canada when George H. W. Bush was president, delivered a eulogy at Bush's funeral today, in appreciation for the friendship that resulted from working together on curbing acid rain.
Another environmental legacy from the Bush era was the Energy Policy Act of 1992. Congress wanted to lessen U.S. dependence on oil and gas imports by promoting energy efficiency and providing incentives for renewable energy. In particular, the act sought to encourage the use of alternative fuels, including ethanol, hydrogen, electricity, and biodiesel. The legislation continues to pay dividends today, having set the stage for energy efficiency, innovation, and sustainability.
Last but certainly not least, the early 1990s also saw the emergence of climate change as an issue of global concern. With Congress deeply concerned about global warming and eager for the United States to play a leadership role, President Bush recognized that something had to be done, and vowed that "the United States would lead the world on environmental protection" at the pivotal 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro. In remarks at the summit, which he delivered just after signing the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, President Bush said, “We must leave this Earth in better condition than we found it, and today this old truth must be applied to new threats facing the resources which sustain us all, the atmosphere and the ocean, the stratosphere and the biosphere. Our village is truly global."
Back in the United States, President Bush established the U.S. Global Change Research Program, which coordinates federal research on climate change and its impacts. Congress gave the initiative a firm footing with the Global Change Research Act of 1990, mandating regular reports. The latest one, the 4th National Climate Assessment, was just released on November 23 and confirms the urgent need to act. Hundreds of scientists agree that "the evidence of human-caused climate change is overwhelming and continues to strengthen, that the impacts of climate change are intensifying across the country, and that climate-related threats to Americans’ physical, social, and economic well-being are rising."
EESI salutes President George H.W. Bush's environmental legacy—a legacy we must not take for granted—and hopes his successors will embrace the actions needed to be an "environmental president."