In August 1988, amid a tough presidential election campaign, one candidate said in a speech, “Those who think we’re powerless to do anything about the greenhouse effect are forgetting about the White House effect.” Some might be surprised to learn that the speaker wasn’t the Democratic candidate, it was then-Vice President George H.W. Bush.
As the nation mourns the former president’s death Friday at age 94, his legacy as a Republican environmentalist who put in place fundamental protections against air pollution and climate change should be at the top of the list of his accomplishments.
It is difficult to understate the importance to the nation’s health and welfare of the 1990 Clean Air Act Amendments, and Bush played a pivotal role in their passage. The legislation was hopelessly mired in Congress until Bush used presidential muscle to break a logjam and get it passed. The updating of the 1970 law remains the most sweeping and comprehensive environmental statute on the books. It created the first “cap and trade” program, which ultimately ended the industrial air pollution causing “acid rain” that had blighted large parts of the country. The program’s use of market mechanisms provides a blueprint for controlling all air pollution that contributes to global warming.
The law also paved the way for the requirement for cleaner-running cars and clean fuels that have radically reduced pollution from smog in the United States. And it provided the government with the ability to control 189 toxic substances that had poisoned the air and to require permits from individual sources of pollution. Citizens were empowered to bring lawsuits seeking penalties against violators to ensure the law’s enforcement.
In the decades since Bush championed the law’s passage, its impacts on the nation’s health and productivity have been profound. According to a 2011 Environmental Protection Agency study, in its first 20 years, the law had the effect of reducing premature deaths by 160,000, heart attacks by 130,000 and hospital admissions by 86,000. In the process, it resulted in 13 million fewer lost workdays. Children were healthier, too: The reduction of respiratory illnesses and other diseases related to air pollution meant 3.2 million school days were not lost. The EPA estimates the overall economic benefits of the law at $2 trillion.
It is hard to imagine a law that has done more to boost America’s health, safety, productivity and prosperity.
But Bush’s environmental bona fides extended far beyond the domestic provisions of the Clear Air Act. He pushed for U.S. leadership on a global scale, as vice president and president, to address the mounting threat from the “ozone hole,” caused by certain chemicals released into the atmosphere that thinned the ozone functioning as a shield protecting the Earth from the sun’s harmful ultraviolet rays. The international “Montreal Protocol,” signed by the United States in 1987, required the EPA to ban the use of ozone-harming chemicals that had been commonly found in air-conditioning refrigerants and spray cans. This year came the fantastic news that scientists had confirmed for the first time that the ozone hole is beginning to close.
On climate change, Bush showed White House leadership even before the world had begun to experience its disastrous effects. Understanding the potential threat from the greenhouse effect, as it was then called, Bush instituted in 1989 by executive action the Global Change Research Program. The program pulled together the entire federal government’s expertise on climate change; you might have heard about its newsmaking most recent report, issued the day after Thanksgiving, with alarming warnings about the need for more robust efforts to fight climate change. The report also provided a road map for progress by tracking positive actions taken by state and local governments and businesses.
Bush’s environmental record did have some notable blemishes. He proposed drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, and officials in his administration undermined the initial implementation of the Clean Air Act Amendments. In his 1992 reelection bid, Bush even mocked vice-presidential candidate Al Gore as “Ozone Man.” But his trash talking on the trail in a losing campaign shouldn’t outweigh Bush’s environmental achievements. As we honor his life and service, let’s remember that we can all breathe easier because he was our president.
Medina was the principal deputy undersecretary at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration under President Barack Obama and now publishes Our Daily Planet, an independent environmental newsletter.