Reagan, Nixon, and Bush Officials Push Congress to Act on Global Warming

Co-chairman of the National Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill and Offshore Drilling William Reilly
National Journal
Jason Plautz
June 18, 2014, 9:17 a.m.

Cab­in­et mem­bers from four Re­pub­lic­an ad­min­is­tra­tions Wed­nes­day made a plea for fed­er­al ac­tion to ad­dress cli­mate change, cit­ing new evid­ence that pub­lic opin­ion is shift­ing in fa­vor of it.

The of­fi­cials, all former heads of the En­vir­on­ment­al Pro­tec­tion Agency, said there is a siz­able fac­tion with­in the Re­pub­lic­an Party that would sup­port cli­mate ac­tion, but only if they’re backed by vo­cal pub­lic sup­port.

“There are a lot of Re­pub­lic­ans that do be­lieve that the cli­mate is chan­ging and hu­mans play a role in that,” said Christine Todd Whit­man, who led EPA un­der Pres­id­ent George W. Bush. “They just need some cov­er. And if they hear from the pub­lic that this is an is­sue of im­port­ance to them “¦ you’re go­ing to find more and more of them speak­ing out.”

Whit­man was one of four Re­pub­lic­an EPA chiefs to testi­fy this morn­ing be­fore the Sen­ate En­vir­on­ment and Pub­lic Works Com­mit­tee, joined by Wil­li­am D. Ruck­elshaus (who served un­der Pres­id­ents Nix­on and Re­agan), Lee M. Thomas (Re­agan), and Wil­li­am K. Re­illy (George H.W. Bush).

The cur­rent Re­pub­lic­an Party line casts skep­ti­cism on the sci­ence link­ing hu­man activ­ity to glob­al warm­ing and staunchly op­poses le­gis­lat­ive or ad­min­is­trat­ive car­bon caps.

But in a roundtable with re­port­ers, all four former of­fi­cials re­it­er­ated the need for ac­tion on cli­mate change, re­gard­less of the polit­ic­al situ­ation in Con­gress. And, cit­ing an NBC News/Wall Street Journ­al poll that found 61 per­cent of Amer­ic­ans back ac­tion to com­bat cli­mate change, they pre­dicted the polit­ic­al dam would break.

“When all of these en­vir­on­ment­al is­sues have been ad­dressed suc­cess­fully in the past, it’s where there’s strong pub­lic sup­port for ac­tion,” said Ruck­elshaus, who was the first head of EPA, un­der Nix­on. “That [poll] is in­dic­at­ive of what seems to be a shift in pub­lic opin­ion on that, and if that turns in­to a de­mand for ac­tion, something will hap­pen.”

Ruck­elshaus said that was the situ­ation Nix­on faced be­fore he cre­ated EPA in 1970. Even though the pres­id­ent hadn’t entered the White House with the en­vir­on­ment atop his agenda, he was “clearly moved by pub­lic opin­ion” that showed Amer­ic­ans wanted to clean up their wa­ter and air.

While Whit­man said Con­gress was the “prefer­able vehicle by which to make things hap­pen,” she praised Pres­id­ent Obama for mov­ing to reg­u­late car­bon di­ox­ide from power plants uni­lat­er­ally.

For more evid­ence of mo­mentum, all four poin­ted to work be­ing done at the loc­al and state levels. The flex­ib­il­ity un­der the power-plant rule that will al­low states to look to cap-and-trade pro­grams, clean en­ergy, and oth­er meth­ods to meet emis­sions goals would help move that for­ward, Re­illy said.

“Lead­er­ship in those states that take it will show the way for the coun­try as a whole and for oth­er states that it’s pos­sible to do that without shut­ting the eco­nomy down or mak­ing every­one so mad you can’t func­tion,” he said. “It’s just not true that if you shift your at­ten­tion from res­ist­ing the rule to try­ing to fig­ure out ways tot make it work, then we’ll all make a lot of pro­gress.”

Wheth­er the mes­sage from the re­tired ad­min­is­trat­ors reaches the less polit­ic­ally shiel­ded le­gis­lat­ors re­mains to be seen. Some law­makers’ open­ing state­ments at the hear­ing — where dozens of coal miners filled chairs in the audi­ence to protest the cli­mate plan — had a fa­mil­i­ar ring.

“Re­cently, many of the ex­treme weath­er claims be­ing made were found to be without mer­it,” said rank­ing mem­ber Dav­id Vit­ter of Louisi­ana. “What has come true is the eco­nom­ic calam­ity that be­falls na­tions that head down the path Pres­id­ent Obama uni­lat­er­ally se­lec­ted for Amer­ica.”

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