It's time for Republicans to lead (again) on climate

A Changing Climate Means A Changing Society. The Island Press Urban Resilience Project, Supported By The Kresge Foundation And The JPB Foundation, Is Committed To A Greener, Fairer Future.​ This Article Was Originally Published May 19, 2019 in The Hill. 

There are hopeful signs that the Republican Party might be moving away from its near-total denial of climate change and its opposition of measures to mitigate it. Recently, Sen. Lindsay Graham (R-S.C.) declared that climate change is real and promised a Republican alternative to the Green New Deal. And Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) has proposed a five-year “new Manhattan Project” to jump-start clean energy development.

As a lifelong Republican, I hope that these developments signal a return to the GOP’s affirmative role on environmental issues. Among the things that I have found particularly troubling and disappointing about President Trump’s dominance of the GOP has been the party’s rejection of its century-old tradition of leadership on these matters.

It may be hard to remember, but, beginning in the early 20th century with Theodore Roosevelt’s advocacy to conserve wilderness and natural resources, the Republican Party’s commitment to environmental protection has been rich, enduring and long-standing.

Between 1970 and 2000, every significant federal law on environmental protection was enacted under a Republican president and with the significant support of Republican members of Congress. That includes the establishment of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), enactment of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and passage of groundbreaking clean air and clean water bills. Two of the most distinguished and successful EPA Administrators — William Ruckelshaus and William Riley — were appointed by, and served under, Republican presidents. America first engaged with climate issues when President George H.W. Bush sent Riley to Rio de Janeiro in 1992.

The Republican Party has largely walked away from this proud record in recent years. The Trump administration, which is dismantling regulations without regard to their purpose or effectiveness, has put at risk the safety net of laws and rules that protect public health and the natural and built environment.

Worse, it has rejected the science that underlies an understanding of the causes and catastrophic risks of climate change — another break with Republican tradition and principles.

All but a handful of scientists acknowledge that the climate is changing and that humanity has played a significant role in this warming trend. There is also broad scientific agreement about the effects of climate change: rising sea levels, melting polar ice caps, more intense storms, catastrophic rainfall, increased flooding and storm surges, longer droughts, and more frequent wildfires.

We are already seeing the effects of climate change: rising sea levels cause flooding in coastal cities like Miami and Norfolk, even on sunny days. In the next few years, many major coastal commercial airports will be underwater in the absence of hugely expensive seawalls and other protective measures.

The human and financial costs of catastrophic weather events place almost impossible burdens on federal, state and local governments. In the face of these realities, the federal government under prior Republican and Democratic administrations adopted regulations to mitigate the emissions of greenhouse gases, in order to slow rising temperatures.

Those regulations include strengthened motor vehicle fuel efficiency and emissions standards, which were developed under President George W. Bush and accelerated under President Obama. Last year, the Trump administration rolled back those standards and now proposes a weaker version.

Why? Motivated by anti-regulatory rigidity, and influenced by the fossil fuel industry, the Trump administration was determined to delay the introduction of technological innovations that would increase fuel efficiency and reduce greenhouse gas emissions from motor vehicles. The predetermined policy goals of the Trump administration drove an analysis that overstated both the safety benefits of the proposed Trump rollback and the costs from introducing these more rigorous standards with the 2025 model year.

While I am no fan of “command-and-control” regulatory regimes, there is an important and judicious role for government to play when market forces have proven inadequate to protect public health and safety.

Climate change may represent the greatest threat to public health and safety humanity has ever faced. But, at this critical moment, the Trump administration and Republican congressional leadership have turned away from regulatory and statutory leadership on climate — ceding the issue to Democrats.

It’s time for new leaders to restore the tradition of environmental stewardship that is so central to Republican principles.