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Republican Reversal: New Book Examines History of GOP and EPA / COMMENTARY


Republicans were once at the forefront of environmental protection. Nearly a half-century ago, a Republican president created the EPA. But today, some members of the GOP want to scale-back on -- or even eliminate -- certain rules and regulations designed to protect the environment. So, what happened? Commentator Rex Buchanan has this review of a new book that tries to answer that question.

Commentator Rex Buchanan is a writer, traveler and director emeritus of the Kansas Geological Survey. He lives in Lawrence. He was discussing the new book Republican Reversal: Conservatives and the Environment from Nixon to Trump, published by Harvard University Press. The book was written by James Morton Turner, an Associate Professor of Environmental Studies at Wellesley College, and by Andrew C. Isenberg, the Hall Distinguished Professor of American History at the University of Kansas.

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There was a time when Republicans were considered  environmentalists.  Today, not so much.  Back in the 1970s, the GOP helped lead the charge to write laws that provided new protections for the country’s air, land, and water.  Richard Nixon created the Environmental Protection Agency.

  Fast forward 45 years.  Presidential candidate Donald Trump pledged to dismantle the EPA.  As President, Trump hasn’t eliminated the agency, but his budgets consistently weaken it.

How we got to this point is covered in a new book called The Republican Reversal: Conservatives and the Environment from Nixon to Trump.  Published by Harvard University Press, its by James Turner and University of Kansas Hall Distinguished Professor Andrew Isenberg.

They trace the history of the environmental movement in the country in the 1960s, a time when rivers caught fire, big-city air quality could be awful, raw sewage was regularly dumped into rivers, species like the bald eagle were disappearing, and people worried about overpopulation.

Much of the regulatory response to those issues came from none other than Richard Nixon.  Today he’s remembered for resigning under the pressure of a Watergate investigation.  It’s less remembered that he signed into law the Clean Water Act, the National Environmental Policy Act, and the Endangered Species Act. What’s more, he did those things with support from both Republicans and Democrats.

Then things changed.

Today, the GOP fights to get rid of environmental regulations and make public lands smaller.  Why the switch?

Tuner and Isenberg credit three things.  Republicans increasingly champion the free market.  They want private enterprise to fix the environment, not governmental regulation. Second, conservative think tanks and interest groups, like the Heritage Institute and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, became more prominent. Some of those groups attacked the scientific community, particularly on the issue of climate change. Finally, as air and water became cleaner, problems seemed less urgent.  Republicans viewed additional regulation as governmental overreach.

All of this is relevant today, because it shapes the response to climate change, an issue that many environmentalists consider of absolute urgency.  Republicans like Oklahoma’s former senator James Inhofe fought to discredit the science behind climate change and to reduce governmental response to it.  The Donald Trump presidency, by withdrawing from the Paris climate accord, rolling back regulation, and shrinking public lands, may be the strongest expression of that Republican philosophy.

Here’s an unfortunate casualty: Matters of science have turned into just another political debate.  Science has been caught up in the same partisan politics as the rest of society.

And here’s why this matters so much.  Funding for science and scientific agencies takes a mere 2 percent of the federal budget.  As science gets politicized, that funding gets harder to come by, especially for things like climate science.  Considering the contributions of scientific research to the economic and intellectual quality of our lives, that prospect is deeply troubling.

This new book by Turner and Isenberg helps us understand how all this happened.  And why the environment, and science, have gone from something everybody can agree about, to just one more political football.