The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Americans want climate solutions. Why won’t our politicians deliver?

The divide between public opinion and legislative action is only growing.

Protesters line Central Park West in Manhattan in April 2017, during the Earth Day “March For Science NYC” demonstration to coincide with similar marches globally. (Andrew Kelly/Reuters)

Ahead of Earth Day and the global climate summit organized by the Biden administration, climate envoy John F. Kerry is busy at work negotiating agreements with individual countries. Yet before the administration and the United States can fully address the global ecological challenges of the 21st century, it must first reckon with the limits, challenges and failures of modern environmental politics domestically.

For the past 50 years, partisan gridlock has increasingly undermined the chances for legislation on environmental issues — even for policies that are popular with the public. However, the roots of environmental politics offer lessons on how to overcome such obstacles.

When Republican President Richard M. Nixon signed the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) on Jan. 1, 1970, it set in motion a new age of environmental politics. NEPA arose during an ecological crisis. Cities were choking from smog and waterways were so polluted that they were nearly depleted of life. Most vividly illustrating the problem, the Cuyahoga River caught fire in Cleveland in 1969.

NEPA created new precedents for the federal government’s role in tackling environmental issues. The act entailed a bold, wide-ranging pledge to place environmental concerns at the forefront of national policy, laid the foundation for the Environmental Protection Agency and required environmental impact statements (EIS) for all major federal construction projects.

NEPA was part of a slew of environmental legislation that trickled down from federal to local governments throughout the late 20th century as a political consensus formed over the need to address ecological challenges. For many Americans, especially those living in relatively new suburban communities at the forefront of environmental change, supporting this type of legislation was about more than cleaning up and protecting air, water and land: It was also a quality-of-life issue that called upon American values of sacrifice, ingenuity and citizenship to solve. As Sen. John Sherman Cooper (R-Ky.) explained after the passage of the National Air Quality Act of 1970, the new environmental ambitions required “a massive effort, not only by the Federal Government and States, and localities, but by industry and through the willingness of citizens throughout the country to make the sacrifices necessary and to pay the price of accomplishing the goals of clean air.” Such ideas knitted together a diverse political coalition that sought to create bold — and even radical — change.

By the end of the 1970s, federal environmental legislation such as the Clean Air and Water Acts proved tremendously successful. Lakes and rivers, once dumping grounds for sewage and industrial waste, were restored for recreational purposes. Air quality across the country drastically improved, providing benefits to both human health and the economy. Even though this legislation did not extend to all industries, the momentum it created put pressure on industries, such as car manufacturers, to innovate and improve their practices.

Yet, as the decade ended, new challenges emerged. Stories of toxic pollution harming suburban communities swept the country. In places such as Love Canal in New York and Woburn, Mass., the news of toxic waste causing cancer in children spurred public outrage. Communities organized to spread awareness of the plight of industrial waste near residential neighborhoods and demanded congressional action.

Such instances pitted public opinion against irresponsible corporate polluters, once again leading to major federal legislation — the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA), more popularly known as Superfund. The idea behind CERCLA was basic: The polluter pays for damages and cleanup. However, enforcing such liability and mitigating environmental damage proved to be a difficult task.

Superfund sites often produced lengthy litigation processes to determine liability, which stalled cleanup projects. The Industri-Plex site in Woburn, for example, had dozens of different industries operating and contributing to polluting the site over a course of a century. Many of them had ceased to exist by the 1980s, making it difficult — if not impossible — to hold all parties responsible for one of the most contaminated places in all of North America.

In response, Congress substantially amended CERCLA in 1986, to create new tools for cleanup and settlements, greater public collaboration and to increase funding.

Yet, this legislation obscured how the very consensus over environmentalism had begun to crack. The Reagan administration pushed back against the environmental policy of the 1970s. Reagan’s ascendancy to the Oval Office in 1981 marked a distinct break from previous Republican administrations relating to environmental issues and policies. Unable to dismantle established environmental regulation, the administration instead sought to cripple regulatory agencies such as the EPA under the leadership of Anne Gorsuch, filling the agency with corporate insiders and drastically reducing its budget. Such maneuvering helped to reinforce the idea of government inability to fix problems.

Reagan’s anti-environmental stance and the doubts about government’s ability to solve environmental problems created by the struggles to carry out Superfund cleanups profoundly affected the future of environmental politics. Securing legislative compromises and solutions became far more difficult.

During the 1990s, Republicans in Congress adopted Reagan’s conservative view toward environmental issues, which transformed environmental politics from something that had once produced consensus into a deeply partisan issue. The switch meant an end to major environmental legislation, leaving executive action or administrative reform within regulatory agencies, such as the EPA, as the only viable means to address environmental issues.

But Republicans are not the only ones to blame. Indeed, Democrats have controlled both the executive and legislative branches of government during both the Clinton and Obama years and failed to enact legislation to address recent issues such as climate change, petrochemicals and environmental justice. Reform occurred, but these were largely business-friendly policies that favored voluntary action over actual regulation and enforcement as partisan divides grew.

Oddly, this political gridlock does not reflect public opinion. A majority of Americans, Democrats and Republicans, continue to favor environmental management and protection. When faced with the false question of choosing the economy or environment, Americans still prefer environmental protection — even with the rise of unemployment over the past year. What has emerged is a growing divide between the public and lawmakers over the role of government in managing, conserving and protecting the environment — including people.

Conquering the environmental challenges of the 21st century requires more than executive action and administrative reform — something that, as the Trump years showed, can easily be overturned. Doing so will be essential to maintaining any long-term global commitments to address the climate crisis.

The lessons of modern American environmental politics offer a guide for how to achieve legislative success, which begins with recognizing the immediate, national importance of addressing environmental issues and creating coalitions of support. Enforcing regulations and holding polluters responsible can also help to establish strong incentives for corporations to commit to improving environmental practices. The successes of the past also reveal the need for Congress to find creative solutions for industries and issues not covered under major legislation such as NEPA, the Clean Air and Water Acts and CERCLA. Ambitious legislation to address some of these areas, such as agriculture, plastics and environmental justice, are underway. However, for these bills to pass and the United States to become a global environmental leader again, Congress and the Biden administration need to recognize the science, the need for mass mobilization and to restore consensus politics that align with the American public.