In his 1991 State of the Union Address—delivered just days after the start of the Persian Gulf War, which, according to far-right pundit (and brother of you-know-who) David Limbaugh, “all but the isolationist wing of the Republican Party” supported, because they “believed that preserving the free flow of oil at market prices was sufficiently important to our national interests to warrant repelling [Saddam] Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait” —President George H. W. Bush declared:

We’ve prepared a detailed series of proposals that include: a budget that promotes investment in America’s future—in children, education, infrastructure, space, and high technology; legislation to achieve excellence in education, building on the partnership forged with the 50 Governors at the education summit, enabling parents to choose their children’s schools and helping to make America number one in math and science; a blueprint for a new national highway system, a critical investment in our transportation infrastructure; a research and development agenda that includes record levels of federal investment, and a permanent tax credit to strengthen private R&D and to create jobs; [and] a comprehensive national energy strategy that calls for energy conservation and efficiency, increased development, and greater use of alternative fuels…”

Too bad he had decided to launch a war for oil instead of pushing aggressively for “greater use of alternative fuels.”

On April 22, 1992, a year after that fossil-fueled fight concluded, Arkansas Governor and Democratic presidential candidate Bill Clinton laid out his vision on the environment in a 37-minute speech at Drexel University in Pennsylvania. He recalled the vigor of the environmental movement in the 1960s and 1970s and noted that similar vigor was needed today to confront current challenges, including “our addiction to fossil fuels, [which] is wrapping the Earth in a deadly shroud of greenhouse gases.” He also sharply condemned Bush’s failure to truly lead on pressing environmental concerns, and rejected the notion that economic growth and environmental protection were mutually exclusive concepts.

The speech seemed to put the Bush administration on the defensive, and in an effort to nullify criticism of his climate and environmental record, Bush declared that he would in fact attend the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development in Rio De Janeiro, Brazil, in June. Prior to leaving for Brazil, Bush declared that at the event, he would not sign a treaty intended to protect global biodiversity, and defended his decision in a in early-June, as well as in a brief statement to the press several days later.

In Brazil, Bush courageously signed the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, which attempted to clear a path towards a binding international treaty to sharply reduce greenhouse gas emissions. However, weeks later, Clinton selected Gore as his running mate–and Bush responded by viciously attacking Gore as “Ozone Man” on the campaign trail and mocking policy responses to the climate crisis in the presidential debates.

Clinton, of course, defeated Bush on November 3, 1992; shortly after being sworn in on January 20, 1993, the 42nd President declared, “To renew America, we must meet challenges abroad as well as at home. There is no longer a clear division between what is foreign and what is domestic. The world economy, the world environment, the world AIDS crisis, the world arms race: they affect us all.”

Just as Ronald Reagan failed to lead on AIDS during his tenure as President, so too did George H. W. Bush fail to lead on climate during his four years in the White House. Yes, he deserves credit for resisting the temptation to indulge in James Inhofe-style rhetorical assaults on climate science, and for signing the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, something no Republican President would even think of doing today. However, there simply wasn’t enough boldness from Bush on this issue; from associating with John Sununu (and Energy Secretary James Watkins, another vehement climate-change denier, as Ross Gelbspan noted in The Heat is On) to launching over-the-top attacks on Gore and logical efforts to reduce emissions, Bush simply did not go as far as the science demanded.

This warming world desperately needed George H. W. Bush to lead on climate in the late-1980s and early-1990s. That mission wasn’t accomplished. Because he failed to lead on the most important economic, environmental and national-security issue of our time, history’s assessment of the man will not be kind, nor will it be gentle.

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.