When the Clean Air Act first became law in 1970, the Senate passed it without a single nay vote. Only one representative had voted against the bill.
During the signing ceremony, President Richard Nixon said, "As we sign this bill in this room, we can look back and say, in the Roosevelt Room on the last day of 1970, we signed a historic piece of legislation that put us far down the road toward a goal that Theodore Roosevelt, 70 years ago, spoke eloquently about: a goal of clean air, clean water, and open spaces for the future generations of America."
Six years later, Republican Sen. James Buckley joined four other Republicans in a letter pushing their fellow Party members to strengthen the Act by prohibiting industrial pollution in national parks.
George H. W. Bush ran on the environment in 1988, and his presidency saw an expansive update to the Clean Air Act. The Senate passed the amendment with an 89-11 vote. Twenty-five representatives voted against the measure. Kentucky Sen. Mitch McConnell voted for the amendment, saying, “I had to choose between cleaner air and the status quo. I chose cleaner air.”
The recession sent that aspect of Bush's platform fleeing. By the 1992 presidential election, he was calling Democratic vice-presidential candidate Al Gore, "Ozone Man." Some environmental advocates never saw Bush on their side. The director of the National Toxics Campaign said in 1988, "Calling George Bush an environmentalist is like calling Ayatollah Khomeini a human rights activist."
Conservatives had been tiptoeing away from environmentalism since President Reagan took office in 1981. Now it seemed like the entire GOP was becoming afraid of the issue as businesses and coal companies' complaints grew louder. In 1989, the soon-to-be-coined "Ozone Man" told the New York Times, ''What looks like a risk-free issue is certainly not.''
Environmentalism still didn't completely toe a partisan line. In 1997, several Northeast Republicans supported the Environmental Protection Agency — also created during Nixon's presidency — and its efforts to strengthen air quality standards. N.Y. Sen. Alfonse D'Amato likened state-line crossing smog to terrorism. "We are sponsoring a form of pollution terrorism by allowing this to take place.''
Although many environmentalists have criticized the environmental legacy of President George W. Bush, he often spoke of the need to address greenhouse gas emissions, and his presidential library won a "Climate Hero" award after he left office.
Arizona Sen. John McCain was a strong supporter of instituting a cap-and-trade system to limit carbon emissions, introducing bills to create such a system in 2003, 2005 and 2007. George H. W. Bush helped institute an effort to create a cap-and-trade system for sulfur dioxide, which causes acid rain.
The same bipartisan swoon is not greeting President Obama's new plan to cut power plant emissions by 30 percent in the next 15 years. Even half-hearted approval is hard to find, especially from Republicans and Democrats facing tough 2014 prospects in states with flinty relationships with environmental policy.
Alison Lundergan Grimes, a Democratic senate candidate running against McConnell in Kentucky, said after EPA regulations on new power plants were released last year, "Coal keeps the lights on in Kentucky — plain and simple — and I will not stand idle as overreaching regulation adversely impacts jobs and middle-class families." McConnell, who supported the 1990 Clean Air Act update despite the fact he couldn't get his own amendment protecting coal added to the bill, is going to introduce legislation to stop Obama's new regulations this week.
Republicans — and conservative Democrats — have been hesitant to take up the issues on environmentalists' minds for years, thanks to an American apathy, a changing ethos in the Republican Party and the powerful discontent of many who work in energy, especially those in the coal industry.
The Huffington Post looked at the campaign websites of all 107 Republicans running for Senate, and only one mentioned climate change. Jim Rubens, who is running against Scott Brown in New Hampshire, told them, "Trust me. It is the most difficult part of my campaign."
During the 2012 presidential election, more than one Republican candidate added abolishing the EPA to their platform. Democrats on the House Committee for Energy and Commerce tallied up 95 votes on legislation to dismantle the Clean Air Act between 2011 and 2012. McCain has said that Congress needs to do something about climate change, but hasn't supported many of their recent efforts to do so. In 2009, he called a climate bill sponsored by Sens. Lindsay Graham and Joe Lieberman "horrendous."
Earlier in May, Interior Secretary Sally Jewell said of McCain, he "hasn't talked as much about [climate change], or he has changed his position in a public way, and I think a lot of that just reflects the political realities of opinions out there."
In a Pew Research Center survey from January 2014, 46 percent of Republicans and those leaning Republican said there was no evidence that the earth is warming. Seventy percent of tea party Republicans think the same.
Pew also asked Americans to rank whether issues were top priorities of Congress and the White House. Climate change fell near the bottom, coming in 18th place out of 20. Gallup asked a similar question in March, and the only issue that worried Americans less than climate change was race relations. Part of the reason Americans aren't as vocal abut the environment as they were at the time of the Clean Air Act is that the effects of pollution aren't as visible — or aren't as easily connected to human activity. Americans could see smog. The Clean Air Act of 1970 helped rid smog from the sky, leaving behind pollution that was still causing respiratory problems and damage, but not constantly reminding people of its presence.
For conservative Democrats, angering unions has been a major reason for the shift against strong environmental standards. Many labor unions have supported the aims of several environmental groups, as well as Obama's climate plan. Other unions, particularly in coal country, have been displeased with the EPA's move on power plant emissions.
When Pew asked Americans about EPA power plant regulations, however, a majority of people in all parties favored them.
Forty-four years ago, environmental policy wasn't a wholly partisan issue. Today, it isn't a wholly partisan issue either, but in a very different way, with Republicans and Democrats fighting some measures, different Republicans and Democrats supporting other initiatives and Republican and Democratic voters dabbling a bit in both camps.
Earlier in May, the government released a report on the climate that was nothing but bad news. A co-author of the report told the Washington Post, “For a long time, we have perceived climate change as an issue that’s distant, affecting just polar bears or something that matters to our kids. This shows it’s not just in the future; it matters today. Many people are feeling the effects.”
Until Americans at large connect those effects to the environment, it's doubtful that we'll see a moment where anybody can agree on how to tackle the issue, as responses to the EPA announcement this week are sure to confirm.