Why is Environmental Protection a Partisan Issue?

Log landing, Gifford Pinchot National Forest, Washington. Photo: Jeffrey St. Clair.

These days, protecting the very systems that enable life on Earth has inexplicably become a partisan issue. But why would that be? We all need clean air to breathe, clean water to drink, clean soil in which to grow food, and a functioning, life-supporting climate. Without those essentials, life as we know it is imperiled — as all the flashing red warning lights of drought, temperature extremes, devastating storms, floods, and species extinctions are indisputably proving every day.

While the foolish and incredibly destructive Red v. Blue, Republican v. Democrat battles rage across our nation, it’s worth remembering that it wasn’t always like this. Republican President Richard Nixon declared in his 1970 State of the Union Address that: “The great question of the ’70s is, shall we surrender to our surroundings, or shall we make peace with nature and begin to make reparations for the damage we have done to our air, our land and our water? Clean air, clean water, open spaces — these should once again be the birthright of every American. If we act now — they can be.”

Of course politicians are known for their rhetorical flourishes and promises that evaporate almost as soon as the speech ends. To be clear, President Nixon was no environmentalist — in fact in 1973 he said he “had no sympathy with environmentalists.” But he realized the scope and power of the newly-born “environmental movement,” which launched the first Earth Day in 1970, and the political liability of ignoring it.

He signed the legislation that created the Endangered Species Act of 1969, the National Environmental Policy Act, the Clean Water Act of 1972, and the Clean Air Act of 1970 — all of which were sponsored by Democrats. He also created the Environmental Protection Agency by consolidating 44 disparate government offices, saying it would treat “air pollution, water pollution, and solid wastes as different forms of a single problem.”

Only a decade later, however, the unrelenting pressures from those who felt environmental regulation hobbled their commercial enterprises — be it raw resource extraction or industrial pollution — found a champion in Republican President Ronald Reagan. He appointed miscreants, such as James Watt, to basically ignore or overturn the environmental laws and programs, including the hazardous waste cleanup Superfund program newly signed into law by Democratic President Jimmy Carter.

For those who might think Democrats are their environmental saviors, it’s worth remembering that it was Montana’s Democratic Senator Max Baucus who attempted, but failed, to amend the Superfund law to exempt mining wastes from the program. Imagine where Montana, home to the largest Superfund site in the nation, would be had he been successful.

When President Trump took office in 2017, he waged a full-on war on the environment as yet another one of his disastrous attempts to divide Americans by inducing as much political discord and social conflict as possible. And much like Reagan, he appointed scoundrels and industry lobbyists to head the agencies that previously regulated their industrial activities and pollution — many of whom, such as Montana’s Ryan Zinke, were driven from office in disgrace.

Now, however, with our backs against the wall on the climate collapse and the “sixth great extinction event,” we have run out of time to play stupid partisan political games with our planet’s life support systems. It’s not about votes, it’s about survival. The impacts from environmental degradation recognize no distinctions between Democrats and Republicans — and it’s crystal clear that none of us benefit in the long term from gutting existing environmental protections or opposing those that arise — especially as we struggle with the existential threat of climate catastrophe.

George Ochenski is a columnist for the Daily Montanan, where this essay originally appeared.