No one has helped make our environment better or worse than Richard Nixon.
His legacy as a conservationist has been largely drowned out by the wanton lawlessness that crumbled his presidency. But it’s undeniable that he helped form the foundation for the American government’s ability to protect our natural resources. He proposed and created the Environmental Protection Agency, then signed the National Environmental Policy Act, Clean Air Act, and Endangered Species Act.
Like Dwight Eisenhower, Nixon also vetoed the Clean Water Act, a veto that Congress overrode. So was he a champion for the environment, or just a canny politician who’d pull any dirty trick to win, including trying to save the planet?
The Tricky One entered office at the peak of the power of the middle class. Wages had grown for decades and public advocacy played an unprecedented role in shaping policy. Watching a conservative president act to limit the power of corporations to pollute—and become more popular as he did so—sparked a freakout in the business community that helped lead to a rapid deployment of corporate power and conservative influence to Washington, D.C.
As Jacob S. Hacker and Paul Pierson describe in Winner-Take-All Politics: How Washington Made the Rich Richer — And Turned Its Back on the Middle Class, lobbyists swarmed the nation’s capital like locusts as right-wing organizations such as the Heritage Foundation took shape and pushed the GOP away from moderation.
Nixon’s quick demise helped lead to the quicker rise of Jimmy Carter.
Carter not only put solar panels on the White House roof, but also helped shape and strengthen the environmental policies that Nixon was forced to implement. In return, conservatives and big business doubled down on the effort to reshape the debate and our politics. By the end of the 70s, political spending from business groups to both parties had overwhelmed the financial support that Democrats had relied on from organized labor.
That contributed to the election of Ronald Reagan, a man whose first appointee to the Department of the Interior said trees create more pollution than cars. Reagan was willing to sign on to a global ozone pact, but his environmental agenda was to undermine the environmental agenda, which was symbolized by his removing Carter’s solar panels from the roof of the White House.
Reagan’s “anti-clean-energy, anti-conservation legacy” defined the modern GOP. But as awareness of the climate crisis grew, most mainstream Republicans never felt comfortable displaying absolute allegiance to big oil and other polluters. Newt Gingrich made an ad with Nancy Pelosi about the need to confront global warming. John McCain ran for the presidency supporting a “cap and trade” policy.
Barack Obama’s presidency began as conservatives finally felt a religious obligation to call for the drilling of anything that has a crevasse.
As the science behind climate change has become stronger and accepted by anyone who assesses threats for a living — including the military and the insurance industry — 74 percent of Republican senators and 53 percent of Republican members of the House of Representatives deny that the problem even exists. And with the rise of the Tea Party movement, which was largely funded by the Koch brothers — who seem to see clean energy as an existential risk to their carbon polluting empire — the “I’m not a scientist” era of the GOP began.
Faced with a party whose main argument would be that he wasn’t doing enough to create more carbon pollution, Obama’s environmental legacy began early with his first major piece of legislation: the stimulus.
“In 2008, people had the sense that renewable energy was a tiny industry in the United States,” Mike Grunwald — who wrote the book on the stimulus — told Grist. “What they forget is it was a tiny dead industry — because these wind and solar projects were essentially financed through tax credits, which required people with tax liability, and everybody had lost money, so nobody needed [the tax credits]. By changing those to a cash grant, it instantly unlocked this industry. Another thing that’s helped to create the wind and solar industry was advanced manufacturing tax credits, which were a gigantic deal.”
After eight years of an administration of oil men who consulted with other oil men to set energy policy, America finally was at least trying not to make climate change worse.
In Obama’s first term, new efficiency standards for automobiles promised radical reductions to carbon emissions, and mercury standards forced coal plants to modernize or close. In his second term, he forged a historic climate deal with China that subverted one of the most powerful arguments that conservatives make against reducing emissions, and he presented the fully realized plan to regulate carbon under the Clean Air Act. And solar panels are back on the White House.
While 2014 was the hottest year on record, it was also the first year in which the global economy grew without carbon emissions increasing in four decades.
Environmentalists including Naomi Klein argue that the president missed his chance for a radical response to climate change that matched the seriousness of the crisis. There is certainly more the president could do to fight back against the desire to pollute without consequences that threatens global stability.
But even these criticisms can’t undermine what’s been accomplished since 2009.
The pioneering conservationism of Teddy Roosevelt, the environmentalism embedded in the New Deal, Nixon’s pragmatism, and Carter’s evangelism for the planet all forged the foundation for green presidential leadership. But when it comes to advancing clean energy and fighting carbon pollution, no president has done more than Barack Obama.
In the calcified, uncompromising political environment Nixon helped spark, Obama offered a glimpse of how the presidency can be used to fight for climate sanity, even in the face of extremely well-funded and increasingly unreasonable opposition.
Photo: President Barack Obama speaks as student winners of a broad range of science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) competitions from across the country look on in the East Room of the White House during the 2015 White House Science Fair on March 23, 2015 in Washington, D.C. (Olivier Douliery/Abaca Press/TNS)