On February 5, 1990, President Bush—perhaps chastened by the strong criticism his administration faced towards the end of 1989 for being less than diligent on leading a worldwide effort to cut carbon emissions —addressed a special gathering of the IPCC in Washington, D.C. Bush tried to make it clear that one could hold a right-leaning worldview while acknowledging the reality of the climate crisis.

Bush declared:

We all know that human activities are changing the atmosphere in unexpected and in unprecedented ways. Much remains to be done. Many questions remain to be answered. Together, we have a responsibility to ourselves and the generations to come to fulfill our stewardship obligations. But that responsibility demands that we do it right. We acknowledge a broad spectrum of views on these issues, but our respect for a diversity of perspective does not diminish our recognition of our obligation or soften our will to produce policies that work. Some may be tempted to exploit legitimate concerns for political positioning. Our responsibility is to maintain the quality of our approach, our commitment to sound science, and an open mind to policy options.

So, the United States will continue its efforts to improve our understanding of climate change — to seek hard data, accurate models, and new ways to improve the science — and determine how best to meet these tremendous challenges. Where politics and opinion have outpaced the science, we are accelerating our support of the technology to bridge that gap. And we are committed to coming together periodically for international assessments of where we stand. Therefore, this spring the United States will host a White House conference on science and economic research on the environment, convening top officials from a representative group of nations to bring together the three essential disciplines — science, economics, and ecology. They will share their knowledge, assumptions, and state-of-the-art research models to outline our understanding and help focus our efforts. I look forward, personally, to participating in this seminar and to learning from its deliberations.

Our goal continues to be matching policy commitments to emerging scientific knowledge and a reconciling of environmental protection to the continued benefits of economic development. And as Secretary Baker observed a year ago, whatever global solutions to climate change are considered, they should be as specific and as cost-effective as they can possibly be. If we hope to promote environmental protection and economic growth around the world, it will be important not to work in conflict but with our industrial sectors. That will mean moving beyond the practice of command, control, and compliance toward a new kind of environmental cooperation and toward an emphasis on pollution prevention rather than mere mitigation and litigation. Many of our industries, in fact, are already providing crucial research and solutions…

Where developing nations are concerned, I know some argue that we’ll have to abandon the free-market principles of prosperous economies. In fact, we think it’s all the more crucial in the developing countries to harness incentives of the free enterprise system in the service of the environment. I believe we should make use of what we know. We know that the future of the Earth must not be compromised. We bear a sacred trust in our tenancy here and a covenant with those most precious to us — our children and theirs. We also understand the efficiency of incentives and that well-informed free markets yield the most creative solutions. We must now apply the wisdom of that system, the power of those forces, in defense of the environment we cherish.

Of course, Bush was still nervous about the perception that his administration preferred to seriously tackle climate at a later date—a perception not without some merit. To that end, in April 1990, Bush insisted that his administration was on the case —an assertion that met with some degree of scorn.

Perhaps if Bush had jettisoned his far-right Chief of Staff, John Sununu—who, as Ross Gelbspan noted in his seminal 1997 book The Heat is On, was quite enamored of a pro-fossil-fuel, anti-climate-action propaganda film produced by the Western Fuels Association that featured infamous climate-change denier Richard Lindzen—prior to 1991 (or, better yet, had hired a Chief of Staff who didn’t recoil at the very thought of climate science to begin with), he could have paid proper attention to the coming chaos. Perhaps if Bush’s rhetoric had been as forceful as that of Senator Gore, more Americans would have been galvanized on this issue. Alas, the world couldn’t avoid the sense that Bush had other concerns on his mind.

In July 1990, the Los Angeles Times noted the contrast between the Bush administration’s opaque vision on the climate crisis and its sharp focus on another major environmental concern—the still-wounded ozone layer:

The tension is often explained as a dispute between Bush’s strong-willed chief of staff, John H. Sununu, who is deeply suspicious of environmentalists, and his Environmental Protection Agency chief, William K. Reilly.

That explanation, however, is an inaccurate characterization, Administration officials say. Although Reilly has advocated a stronger environmental policy, he has neither the clout nor the access to Bush to challenge Sununu, the officials say. In fact, Reilly has been conspicuous by his absence from the economic summit, virtually the only senior Administration official with an interest in the summit issues whom Bush left in Washington.

Instead, the disputes within the Administration reflect Bush’s own ambivalence about the issues. Throughout his Administration, he has been pulled in opposite directions on the environment, tugged between his desire to placate environmentally-conscious voters on the one side and his instinct to protect business people from government regulation on the other.

On ozone protection, aides say, a key factor influencing Bush’s decision was the position of U.S. chemical firms, such as DuPont, which stand to make substantial profits by producing new products to replace those that are now being banned because of their role in damaging the ozone layer. Chemical company executives had urged Bush to support an international aid fund which, in effect, will give nations such as India money to buy the new U.S. products.

A second key factor, Administration aides said, was the intervention of Secretary of State James A. Baker III, who warned Bush that Sununu’s resistance to a Third World aid fund was complicating U.S. relations with European allies.

On global warming, neither of those factors was present. Bush’s top aides are unanimous in believing that the scientific evidence is shaky on all aspects of global warming–the problem’s dimensions, its potential effects and its causes. Moreover, they argue, the sorts of measures that [German Chancellor Helmut] Kohl and other European leaders have pushed–steps to reduce the use of oil, coal and other carbon-based fuels–would put U.S. industry at a disadvantage in world markets.

On November 16, 1990—one day after he signed the 1990 Clean Air Act to combat acid rain—Bush signed the 1990 Global Change Research Act, which required the creation of a “comprehensive and integrated United States research program which will assist the Nation and the world to understand, assess, predict, and respond to human-induced and natural processes of global [climate] change.” It was a good decision…but it fell far short of the bold climate leadership the warming world needed.

NEXT Bush’s inconsistency on climate prior to and during the 1992 presidential election.

D.R. Tucker

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.