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Trump Should Follow Nixon's Lead on the Environment

Words by 3p Contributor
Energy & Environment
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By Evan Lund

Throughout his life and increasingly so since he's become president, Donald Trump has attracted a wide range of labels and nicknames; some good, most bad. Occasionally, those labels, like "villain," came with a comparison to another publicly-perceived villain: President 37, Mr. Richard Nixon.

As the only president to resign from office, some might find the comparison offensive, but Trump doesn't seem to mind. In fact, he's a fan of the former president and borrowed some of Nixon's campaign tactics for his own run at office. Adorning the wall of his Oval Office is a highly favorable letter Trump received in December 1987 from Mr. Nixon, wherein Mrs. Nixon predicts an election win whenever he so chooses to run for office.

The two men have partied together and are now part of the same historic club. Time will tell if they share more in common than their disdain for the liberal media and shepherding of the "silent majority" as "outsiders." One year from now, we'll have a more informed perspective from which to judge - one based on actions, not just tweets. However, in one regard, I hope that the comparison holds up: hopefully Trump ends up remembered for advancing renewable energy the way Nixon is remembered for transforming environmental policy.

For a president whose time in office resulted in the sharpest decrease of federal funding for science research in modern history and who abolished the scientific advisor position, the only one to do so, Nixon remains -- arguably and ironically -- our greenest president yet.

In his first State of the Union address, he outlined an aggressive 37-point program geared toward cleaning up the environment and curbing pollution: the initial framework of a comprehensive plan leading up to the National Environmental Policy Act signed into law on January 1, 1970.

What followed was a policy outpouring that by today's partisan standards seems impossible: the creation of the EPA and NOAA; and passage of the Clean Water Act, the Clean Air Act and then Endangered Species Act. In total, 14 pieces of legislation signed by Nixon remain the bedrock of our environmental policy today, and consequently, frequent corporate litigation.

One might assume that Nixon, riding high from his victory and attempted "monkey wrenching" of Vietnam peace talks, was secretly a devout environmentalist. However, as his own EPA administrator would admit, he "wasn't personally gripped" by environmental issues. Indeed, Nixon lumped environmentalists into the anti-war camp, and believed they both "reflected weaknesses of the American character."

Within his cabinet, he expressed no sympathy for tolerance regarding the matter. Walter Hickel, former pro-oil governor of Alaska and Nixon's Interior Secretary, had a surprise change of heart soon after taking the post and became an ardent defender of the environment; he was soon fired for "certain things that happened" and what insiders called his "outspoken independence." So, what prompted Nixon's contradictory actions?

By the end of the 19th century, the Industrial Revolution had ushered in a new age of coal-driven mass production, infrastructure expansion that opened new commerce channels, and a population boom necessary to sustain America's emergent industries. World War I initiated a mass assembly race, as the speed and efficiency of the assembly line transformed industrial production for those countries in conflict.

Soon after, America experienced cultural and societal upheaval during the Roaring Twenties: a period renowned for capital gains, decadence, and a transition to populous city living. World War II engendered a vast mobilization effort fueled by lucrative government contracts to increase industrial capacity.

As the first half of the 20th century concluded, petroleum had emerged as the primary source to fuel this evolving growth. In 1900, petroleum as a source of energy production made up 4.8 percent of total U.S. energy production. By 1954, the number was 40 percent and climbing, as every sector -- electricity, transportation, industrial -- became heavily dependent on oil.

While the preceding century solidified our position as an innovative superpower, the 1960s were marked by the requisite counter-reaction; widespread activist movements against injustices, and among the causes gathering momentum during this time was environmentalism.

In 1965, President Lyndon Johnson addressed Congress on "Restoring the Quality of our Environment," presenting the findings of a report prepared for him by his Science Advisory Committee on the potential dangers rising carbon dioxide levels may pose. By 1970, the percentage of Americans who considered air pollution a serious problem had reached nearly 40 to 70 percent increase from 1965. This surging domestic crisis represented another faction of an increasingly powerful leftist movement that was consolidating opinion outside of Washington.

Inside Washington, Edmund Muskie, a life-long environmentalist, was consolidating influence in the Senate.

In 1963, as chairman of the new Senate Subcommittee on Air and Water Pollution, Muskie was a vociferous advocate for environmental reform before it emerged as a cause worth a politician's efforts.

For the next decade, "Mr. Clean," as he was known on Capitol Hill, sought to break down the complexities of changing the public's perception of pollution. He recognized environmental pollution as a bane to public health, and in 1964, held pollution hearings in major cities to raise public awareness.

The Clean Air Act of 1965 was the first piece of legislation establishing emissions standards for vehicles; the Water Quality Act of 1965 followed shortly after, authorizing federal regulation in cases involving inadequate standards established by states for interstate waterways. Following their passage, amendments to both Acts strengthened pollution control measures in the years leading up to the 1968 election, where Muskie joined Hubert Humphrey on the Democratic ticket as the vice-presidential candidate.

Nixon won that election, and it was he who strode into the White House, and he who painted his thumbs green once he learned it was fashionable. The Clean Air Act of 1970 and Clean Water Act of 1972 may have been signed into law by Nixon, but were forged from the tireless efforts of Sen. Muskie.

Since its inception, the EPA has elicited red-faced litigation. To be fair, critics have had reason to denounce the agency; for example, states still fail to meet national water quality standards today despite the Clean Water Act's mandates. However, no policy is perfect and a more accurate indication of success or failure accounts for benefits gained and total number of people positively affected.

Between 1970 and 2013, the country experienced a 68% reduction of emissions from six of the most common air pollutants -- an impressive accomplishment considering the GDP more than tripled, energy consumption rose 44 percent and the population grew 54 percent during that time. Assessing the effects of the Clean Air Act from 1970 to 1990, an EPA study concluded the pollution reductions prevented 205,000 premature deaths.

Regardless of whether Nixon's actions arose from some moral sense of obligation or opportunistic guile or political convenience, what matters is that words became actions and plans became policy amid an administration hostile toward science.

From the beginning of his tenure, President Barack Obama was adamant about restoring "science to its rightful place" and harnessing "the sun and the winds and the soil to fuel our cars and run our factories." He published an article in Science, "The irreversible momentum of clean energy," the first sitting U.S. president to do so. His administration decreased our dependence on foreign oil and strengthened alternative energy options, doubling solar and wind capacities.

But plenty of critics said Obama was too much talk and not enough action when it came to establishing bipartisan support for renewable energy development and implementing enforceable energy policies. Although he may have elevated the conversation, there's still plenty of work to be done.

This presents an opportunity for President Trump. Solar is now the cheapest form of energy, and although it's not an option yet for the U.S. to rebuild its entire infrastructure, solar does open the door developing nations seeking renewable energy options.

If President Trump wants to compete with China, he should pay attention to how they're moving away from fossil fuels and investing heavily in renewable technologies. If Nixon jumped on the environmental bandwagon because it was convenient, it wouldn't hurt Trump to take another page out of Dick's playbook.

While his current public approval rating is low, renewable energy is trending. It's worth noting that 64 percent of Americans worry a great deal about global warming. In alignment with those concerns, 65 percent of Americans give priority to developing alternative energy sources compared to 27 percent who favor expanded production of fossil fuel sources.

Submitting to the majority and charting a path toward energy independence via cleaner, alternative sources is an investment in the economy and at least a nod to those people worried about the impending dangers of climate change. And sure, this would contradict some of his campaign promises about coal and oil, but he's already shown that he's not married to things he's said in the past. It's impossible to predict with Trump will do as President, but one thing is for certain; we need a relentless public front that unifies our shared concerns and more people like Edmund Muskie in public office, especially if we have a man like Nixon as President.

Image credit: U.S. Government Archives via Wikimedia Commons

Evan Lund is a former scientific researcher based in Chicago. He started a research scientist interview series called B-sides and Research that you can visit here.

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