Hard to believe how much has changed in a quarter-century.

It was twenty-five years ago today that President George H. W. Bush signed into law the 1990 Clean Air Act, which implemented a cap-and-trade system to reduce the sulfur dioxide emissions that were causing acid rain. It would mark one of the last occasions that a prominent Republican actually embraced a strong policy to protect our environment.

YouTube video

Now that Bush 41 is back in the news, it’s informative to look back at the actions of the man who became President just months after the world finally began paying attention to the peril of carbon pollution–a peril that, as Senator Bernie Sanders noted in last night’s CBS Democratic debate, has profound national security implications. George H. W. Bush could have become one of our greatest Presidents had he led courageously on climate. He did some good…but it wasn’t good enough.

Two months after NASA’s James Hansen warned the Senate about the risks of unrestricted carbon emissions, Vice President and Republican presidential nominee George H. W. Bush— who had declared his desire for a “kinder, gentler nation” in his acceptance speech at the 1988 Republican National Convention—addressed the environment at a campaign stop in Detroit, Michigan; he acknowledged the reality of human-caused climate change and famously declared that those who thought it was impossible to deal with the greenhouse effect underestimated the power of the “White House effect.”

A little over two months after that speech, Bush defeated Democratic opponent Michael Dukakis in the 1988 presidential election. One month later, the United Nations, recognizing the existential threat of carbon pollution, established the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which would become one of the most prominent voices in the discussion of our endangered Earth—the same endangered Earth that Time Magazine had declared the “Planet of the Year.”

Bush did not specifically address climate change or the environment in his January 20, 1989 inaugural address, though he did observe:

My friends, we are not the sum of our possessions. They are not the measure of our lives. In our hearts we know what matters. We cannot hope only to leave our children a bigger car, a bigger bank account. We must hope to give them a sense of what it means to be a loyal friend, a loving parent, a citizen who leaves his home, his neighborhood and town better than he found it. What do we want the men and women who work with us to say when we are no longer there? That we were more driven to succeed than anyone around us? Or that we stopped to ask if a sick child had gotten better, and stayed a moment there to trade a word of friendship?

Ten days later, however, his Secretary of State, James Baker III, did address the threat of climate change, telling a special gathering of the IPCC in Washington:

We can probably not afford to wait until all the uncertainties have been resolved before we do act. Time will not make the problem go away.

Those words were strong, but the actions of the George H. W. Bush administration were another matter. Bush 41’s sole term was marked by inconsistency on the most pressing ecological (and economic) concern of our age – and that this inconsistency was not accidental.

An example of this inconsistency was embodied in his February 1989 address to a joint session of Congress. Bush declared:

If we’re to protect our future, we need a new attitude about the environment. We must protect the air we breathe.

Just three sentences later, Bush proclaimed,

We must make use of clean coal.


Another example of Bush’s inconsistency could be found in the company he kept. His Environmental Protection Agency Administrator, William K. Reilly, was committed to the agency’s mission and accepted both the reality of human-caused climate change and the need to take strong action; however, Bush’s original Chief of Staff, John H. Sununu (who served from 1989 to 1991), was the opposite of a climate hawk. As then-Senator Al Gore noted in his seminal 1992 book Earth in the Balance:

[Sununu] openly derided the notion of global warming, campaigning actively to dampen any moves within the government to confront the issue.

In May 1989, the Bush administration censored the words of the man who, less than a year earlier, warned the world the consequences of carbon, acknowledging that the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) had edited Hansen’s planned follow-up testimony to the Senate Subcommittee on Science, Technology and Space, then chaired by Senator Gore. As the New York Times reported:

In his original text, before it was changed, Dr. Hansen asserted that computer projections showed that global warming caused by pollution from human activity would cause upheavals in the earth’s climate. He warned of substantial increases in temperature, drought in mid-latitudes, severe storms and other stresses. But his testimony was changed to make his conclusions seem less certain.

The science was certain. The need to act was urgent. Why didn’t Bush lead?

(NEXT: Bush 41’s climate cowardice continues into the 1990s.)

UPDATE: On CBS Face the Nation, Sanders explains the connection between climate change and terrorism.

Our ideas can save democracy... But we need your help! Donate Now!

D. R. Tucker is a Massachusetts-based journalist who has served as the weekend contributor for the Washington Monthly since May 2014. He has also written for the Huffington Post, the Washington Spectator, the Metrowest Daily News, investigative journalist Brad Friedman's Brad Blog and environmental journalist Peter Sinclair's Climate Crocks.