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A Stalled Movement

With the passage of one landmark piece of legislation after another, the 1970s marked the peak of the environmental movement. Now it’s playing defense.


Historic: Participants at a 1970 Earth Day event.(Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

When it comes to environmental policy, the United States is living in the past.

It’s been more than 15 years since Congress passed or overhauled any major piece of environmental legislation. Advocates have instead focused on pushing government to enforce current environmental-protection laws and on defending some that are seriously outdated.


“A generation has passed, and we’re in gridlock in terms of advancing policy at the federal level where a lot of these problems have to be solved,” said Wesley Warren, a former official in the Clinton White House who is now the Natural Resources Defense Council’s director of programs.

Advocates recall the heyday of the movement in the 1970s when Republican lawmakers such as Sens. John Chafee of Rhode Island, Mark Hatfield of Oregon, and Robert Stafford of Vermont led the way on many environmental issues and two Republican presidents—Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford—signed a slew of landmark measures into law.

Today, 41 years after the first Earth Day on April 22, 1970, the environment has become one more partisan battleground, as evidenced by GOP efforts earlier this month to use the debate over a continuing resolution for the fiscal 2011 budget to limit the Environmental Protection Agency’s authority. It is now part of Republican Party orthodoxy that environmental regulations have gone too far and have unnecessarily restrained energy development and economic growth.


“The Republican Party today is not even recognizable to the one I used to deal with in the ’70s,” said Patrick Parenteau, who held several jobs at the National Wildlife Federation throughout the 1970s and ’80s and is now a professor at Vermont Law School. “I don’t know if we’ll ever see [again] the era of environmental movement that I saw.”

After Congress passed a wave of environmental legislation in the 1970s, bipartisan support for the movement started to erode as the GOP became more conservative and voters rarely made the environment a top-tier issue on Election Day.

David Jenkins, a lobbyist for the advocacy group Republicans for Environmental Protection, said that a political turning point came in 1994 when Republicans won control of the House and Speaker Newt Gingrich “put libertarian-minded Westerners—with an environmental ax to grind—in charge of the Natural Resources Committee.” Jenkins pointed to then-Reps. Richard Pombo of California and Helen Chenoweth of Idaho, and Rep. Don Young of Alaska, who played important roles on the panel. “That coincided with the rise of polarizing and equally libertarian talk radio,” he said.

Gingrich’s House was unsuccessful in rolling back environmental laws, but GOP hostility toward environmental issues, mainly pushed by Democrats, has continued to grow. “The resentment didn’t go away, and it festered, and it’s now erupted in various ways,” Parenteau said, referring to the rise of the tea party movement.


Some of conservatives’ opposition is fueled by the perception that environmentalists are East Coast or West Coast elitists out of touch with the real-world concerns of people in the heartland who are trying to make ends meet. Congressional Democrats in energy-producing states have also become wary of aggressive environmental regulation, particularly at a time when unemployment remains high.

Opinion polls reveal the environmental movement’s political problems. Increasingly, respondents express doubts about the validity of climate change, despite mounting scientific evidence that the planet is warming. Republicans have blocked a cap-and-trade system—denouncing it as “cap-and-tax”—to reduce the carbon emissions that contribute to climate change, even though the idea is modeled after the 1990 Clean Air Act amendments that President George H.W. Bush signed and that effectively cut the sulfur dioxide emissions that cause acid rain.

Diane Katz, a research fellow in regulatory policy for the conservative Heritage Foundation, disagrees with the characterization that Congress has not passed major environmental policy in almost two decades. She cited the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007, which established renewable-fuel standards and appliance- and lighting-efficiency standards; and the 2008 farm bill, which imposed, for the first time in many cases, environmental standards on farm operations. Katz said that environmental concerns are far less pressing than in the ’70s, when rivers were catching fire because of pollution. “It’d have been pretty difficult to not take action back then,” she said. For Congress, the issues today are much costlier relative to their environmental benefits than they used to be, Katz added.

Climate change is only one of the issues that environmentalists are pressuring Congress to address. Little-known but important laws such as the Toxic Substances Control Act and the Oil Pollution Act are due for overhaul. And others, such as the National Forest Management Act and the Endangered Species Act, are coming under criticism from lawmakers and interest groups because they say they are overly restrictive and hinder economic development.

This article appears in the April 16, 2011 edition of National Journal Magazine.

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