On Sept. 17, 1969 — nearly 47 years ago — Daniel Patrick Moynihan, a high-ranking aide to President Richard M. Nixon, dispatched an internal memo to one of his White House colleagues warning of the ominous consequences of climate change. He predicted that the Earth would get so warm and sea levels so high, that it could be “Goodbye New York, Goodbye Washington.”
Carbon dioxide in the atmosphere “has the effect of a pane of glass in a greenhouse,” and its unrelenting rise should “seize the imagination of persons normally indifferent to projects of apocalyptic change,” Moynihan wrote to John Ehrlichman, Nixon’s special assistant for domestic affairs. “The C02 content is normally in a stable cycle, but recently man has begun to introduce instability through the burning of fossil fuels.”
For those who today recognize the dire consequences of climate change — as the issue has finally achieved a high profile — it might come as a surprise to learn about this early awareness. It shouldn’t. While Nixon and his aides certainly were prescient, they weren’t the only ones — though presidents during those earlier times didn’t do much beyond talk about it.
As early as 1903 — when Republican Theodore Roosevelt was president — “scientists were aware of (Swedish scientist Svante Arrhenius’s) theory that CO2 emissions could bring global warming,” says Spencer Weart, a climate historian and author of “The Discovery of Global Warming.” But “it was regarded as speculative, and it had no policy implications since warming was not expected until centuries later, if at all, and was assumed to be benign,” he says.
Nixon’s predecessor, Lyndon B. Johnson, knew of the dangers of climate change and spoke of them in a special message to Congress shortly after his 1965 inauguration. “Air pollution is no longer confined to isolated places,” he said. “This generation has altered the composition of the atmosphere on a global scale through radioactive materials and a steady increase in carbon dioxide from the burning of fossil fuels.”
Moreover, a report written by his science advisory committee later that year confirmed the climate threat, describing atmospheric carbon dioxide from fossil fuels as “the invisible pollutant,” and foretelling many of the effects of today, including the melting of the Antarctic ice cap, increasing ocean acidity, and sea level rise.
“The climate changes that may be produced by the increased CO2 content could be deleterious from the point of view of human beings,’’ the report said.
Indeed, history suggests that concerns about the environment, including climate change, were the province of presidents from both parties; it was a bipartisan issue long before the notion of protecting the environment became identified solely with liberal Democrats, and anathema to conservative Republicans.
In fact, “conservation was a cornerstone of GOP doctrine for more than a century,” says Norman J. Ornstein, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. “The Republican Party was the party of conservation and the environment. Teddy Roosevelt really established that marker for his party. His hunting notwithstanding, he promoted a reverence for nature and preserving public lands. It was a hallmark of progressivism and conservatism.”
Theodore Roosevelt’s First Annual Message (as the State of the Union address was then known) outlined his aims to conserve and preserve forests, including the use of forests as wildlife preserves. In 1903, he issued an executive order that established a federally-protected wildlife refuge — the forerunner of the present National Wildlife Refuge System — that set aside Pelican Island on Indian River, Fla., as a preserve and breeding ground for native birds, the first of 53 wildlife sanctuaries he created during his presidency.
In 1916, Democratic President Woodrow Wilson signed legislation creating the National Park Service. The Service cares for and safeguards a system that covers 409 areas –- more than 84 million acres — and includes national parks, monuments, battlefields, military parks, historical parks, historic sites, lakeshores, seashores, recreation areas, scenic rivers and trails, and the White House.
But Nixon “was probably our greatest environmental president up to now,” says Stephen Hess, a senior fellow emeritus at the Brookings Institution, who served four presidents, including Republicans Dwight David Eisenhower, Nixon, Gerald Ford and Democrat Jimmy Carter. “He was a very environmentally aggressive president, although that’s not what people tend to remember about him.”
Nixon signed into law the National Environmental Policy Act, which among other things, required environmental impact statements for major new building projects and developments. He also approved the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). He approved extending the Clean Air Act, which gave EPA the authority to regulate air quality. Later, Nixon also approved the Clean Water Act, the Pesticide Control Act, the Marine Mammal Protection Act, and the Endangered Species Act, which replaced and strengthened earlier protections for endangered species initiated during the Johnson Administration.
“In that regard, you could say he [Nixon] put in place the machinery that ultimately would deal with global warming,” Hess says.
When Democrat Jimmy Carter became president, the energy crisis was burgeoning, gasoline was in short supply, and he spoke of a “crisis of confidence” among Americans in major speech on July 15, 1979 devoted to a discussion about the nation’s dependence on energy and foreign oil. Also, he was the first president to install solar panels on the White House roof. Although they were used to heat water, they were largely symbolic. One of the first things that his successor, Republican Ronald Reagan did upon assuming the presidency, was to remove them.
“The Carter administration’s energy concerns revolved around national energy independence, especially in response to the 1973 oil embargo and the second energy crisis in 1979,” says historian Weart. “Renewables were desired mainly because of U.S. vulnerability to oil shortages. If they kept back global warming, that was just a side benefit. There was also a feeling in the 1970s that conservation and solar power represented a ‘small is beautiful’ democratic approach, as opposed to corporate Big Oil and Big Coal.”
Weart adds: “It was Reagan who removed the panels — his people despised what they saw as leftist hippy environmentalism.”
Thus began the Republican backlash to the environment, which continues today. Reagan appointed Anne Gorsuch to head the EPA, a lawyer who believed the agency was over-regulating business. She cut its budget by 22 percent and reduced enforcement against polluters. Ultimately, she resigned amidst a scandal over mismanagement of the program to clean up hazardous waste dumps. Reagan also named James G. Watt to run the Interior Department, an administrator who was seen by his critics as someone who favored development over preservation.
At the same time, the Reagan administration did agree to sign the Montreal Protocol, the international treaty which helped to heal the hole in the ozone layer. His successor, George H.W. Bush, signed the 1990 amendments strengthening the Clean Air Act — sections of which are being used as the basis for most of America’s current climate policy.
Democratic President Bill Clinton was pressured to take action on climate change by his vice president, Al Gore, well known for his views on global warming. Yet Clinton knew that “Republicans in Congress would have sunk any legislation, and Clinton had other priorities,” Weart says. “He was unwilling to spend his limited political capital on an issue that would not become acute during his term in office.”
Two more sets of solar panels have found their way onto the White House in recent years. In 2003, Republican George W. Bush, while silent on climate change and the environment, nevertheless installed a nine-kilowatt rooftop solar photovoltaic system, as well as two solar thermal systems that heat water.
And President Obama installed solar panels on the residence in 2013.
Beyond that, however, President Obama has made protecting the environment and combating climate change a significant cornerstone of his presidential legacy.
Among other things, he played a major role in helping to secure a global agreement to reduce carbon emissions. He initiated the Clean Power Plan that — if it survives a court challenge — will substantially lessen carbon emissions from power plants. He rejected construction of the Keystone XL oil pipeline. He has set aside millions of acres of public land and waters for conservation protection. And he has promoted energy from renewable sources such as solar and wind.
“Obama is our first truly proactive president,” on the environment and climate change, Weart says. “He takes an above-the-fray, long-term view of his responsibilities to the nation and the world.”
Marlene Cimons is a freelance writer who specializes in health, science and the environment.