Those Who Do Not Learn from History

Look how much has changed–and how much has not.

It was fifteen years ago today that President George W. Bush, flanked by Vice President Dick Cheney, spoke in the Rose Garden and defied right-wing ideology by acknowledging that human-caused climate change was real. It was a frustrating speech in many respects, filled with the usual conservative evasions about the magnitude of the threat the world faced from carbon pollution. No one would ever confuse the former Texas Governor with, say, Al Gore. Yet the Republican president actually acknowledged a truth that his party found inconvenient.

Bush’s speech was not an act of courage; it was borne of political necessity. Just three months before the speech, Bush violated a September 2000 campaign promise by abandoning plans to regulate carbon pollution from America’s power plants; he also disavowed the Kyoto Protocol. These decisions damaged his domestic poll numbers, and an early-June report from the National Academy of Sciences pointing to the need to take climate change seriously threatened to inflict further political harm on the recalcitrant administration.

By 2016 Republican standards, Bush’s speech is impressive. Bush spoke of “develop[ing] an effective and science-based approach to addressing the important issues of global climate change” and “recogniz[ing] our responsibility….at home, in our hemisphere, and in the world.” He also refuted the arguments that Rush Limbaugh and other right-wing media figures had been making about climate change for years:

First, we know the surface temperature of the earth is warming. It has risen by .6 degrees Celsius over the past 100 years. There was a warming trend from the 1890s to the 1940s. Cooling from the 1940s to the 1970s. And then sharply rising temperatures from the 1970s to today.

There is a natural greenhouse effect that contributes to warming. Greenhouse gases trap heat, and thus warm the earth because they prevent a significant proportion of infrared radiation from escaping into space. Concentration of greenhouse gases, especially CO2, have increased substantially since the beginning of the industrial revolution. And the National Academy of Sciences indicate that the increase is due in large part to human activity.

Bush would continue to acknowledge the reality of climate change during the course of his presidency. He would never actually do anything about the climate crisis–besides editing scientific reports, harassing climate scientists, genuflecting to ExxonMobil, and trying to convince the American people that the threat wasn’t that severe, of course. Yet Bush, at the very least, admitted that the science was real and credible.

Who would have thought that fifteen years later, the Republicans would nominate a man who believes that climate change is a hoax invented by China? Who would have thought that fifteen years later, despite the abundant evidence of climate chaos, mainstream media entities would still refuse to give this issue the coverage it deserves? And who would have thought that fifteen years later, the folks who thought that there was no real difference between Democrats and Republicans on such issues as the environment would hold on to that warped and worthless worldview?

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.