When my daughters tell people their father is a Republican environmentalist, the response is occasionally to laugh, or make a comment to the effect that he must be an endangered species.
But a Republican environmentalist, historically, is not an endangered species or an oxymoron. Republican leadership has been responsible for enlightened environmental policies that have made our country a healthier, cleaner and safer place, often while leveraging market forces to limit costs and spur economic and technological advances.
I had the good fortune of being present at the beginning of America’s environmental awakening, over a half-century ago. I bear witness to our extraordinary success—I recall when the Cuyahoga River in Ohio was so contaminated it caught fire; when you could barely breathe in parts of Los Angeles; when you couldn’t see the night sky over the Grand Canyon; when the hole in the ozone layer threatened the planet and all of us who call it home.
We addressed those issues and more, with Americans’ great ingenuity and leadership, and often—particularly when Republicans were at the helm—by leveraging the power of private markets and economic incentives to do so with lesser cost, and greater benefits, than any of us predicted. The Montreal Protocol, signed by Ronald Reagan and implemented by George H. W. Bush, represents by far the single largest reduction of climate-warming greenhouse gases achieved by any American president. Without it, the ozone layer would have collapsed by 2050, resulting in millions of skin cancer deaths and extreme climate events. Instead, the US led 196 other countries in phasing out ozone-depleting chemicals, at a negligible cost to the economy.
“Preservation of our environment is not a partisan challenge; it’s common sense,” Ronald Reagan memorably said. So it is disheartening that so many Republicans in public office today fail to celebrate our accomplishments, and dismiss the environment as the purview of Democrats, liberals or the anti-growth lobby. They ignore the reality of human-induced climate change and, by extension, the overwhelming scientific consensus confirming the existential threat to all Americans and the places we live, work, and love.
And they vote accordingly in Congress—to reverse the great American success story of environmental protection. Many will say privately that they understand the science, but if they talk about climate change they will prompt a primary challenge from the right—so they stay quiet, at best, or join the obstructionists in questioning the science. There has been no major change in climate science since 1979; what has changed is the politics.
The Trump Administration, in particular, has demonstrated contempt for science; renounced American environmental leadership by withdrawing from the historic Paris agreement; installed industry lobbyists as regulators; and embraced the false dichotomy between environmental protection and economic growth.
The upcoming midterm election for Congress provides a critical opportunity to restore balance and sanity to our environmental policies. In Illinois, for example, in Illinois, the state where I was born and raised, Rep. Peter Roskam (IL-6) is one of a number of national Republicans who have abandoned their responsibility to protect our water, land and air. Roskam voted for the environment 7 percent of the time during his Congressional career, according to the League of Conservation Voters, and only 3 percent in the last Congress.
Just two months ago, Congressman Roskam voted for deep cuts in the budgets of the EPA and Interior Department, slashing funds needed to protect the drinking water of 117 million Americans. He voted against tax credits and incentives for renewable energy; to eliminate Clean Water Act safeguards that protect communities from toxic pesticide exposure; and to weaken Clean Air Act restrictions on industrial air pollution. Roskam voted for an amendment to prohibit the US military from continuing to research and prepare for the effects that climate change has and will have on military installations.
Roskam has referred to climate science as “junk science.” A dozen national academies of science have formally concluded that human-caused emissions of carbon dioxide are contributing to global warming. A member of Congress who calls their conclusions “junk science” is an embarrassment.
It is for this reason that I have endorsed Peter Roskam’s Democratic opponent, Sean Casten, in this critical race.
Our environmental challenges today are daunting, and what the science tells us to expect from the changing climate threatens all of us. I worry about the planet my grandchildren, the youngest of them just four years old, will inherit. And yet I remain an environmental optimist: I believe that just as I have seen over my long career, American leadership and ingenuity can tackle any challenge.
Americans, and particularly leading members of the Republican Party I have belonged to for decades, are holding the world back in addressing the existential threat of a changing climate. It is long past time for America to lead again on the environment, at home and on a global stage. I hope that Republicans serving in public office today will be reminded of our party’s great successes, and honor them with continued leadership and innovation.
But for the sake of our grandchildren, let us hope that Republicans in leadership positions who fail to take action on—or even acknowledge—the threats that climate change poses to all Americans, are an endangered species.