The Republican Party isn’t exactly known for its environmental activism. Reagan refused to take action on one of the biggest environmental issues of his era-acid rain-and systematically weakened the clout of the EPA. George H.W. Bush ended his term with a freeze on environmental regulations, and his son refused US support for the Kyoto Protocol.
Yet rarely have Republicans been so overtly hostile to existing environmental protections as the current legislators in the 112th Congress. Since the most recent election, Republicans in the House of Representatives have led a series of unprovoked assaults on the EPA. The attack has been two-pronged, with one focus on the EPA’s budget and the other on its powers of regulation.
The Republican’s budget proposal would slash the EPA’s budget by an unprecedented $30 billion—one third of the EPA’s budget, and the biggest cut to any other federal agency. It would also do away with the critical posts of the energy and climate advisor to the President and the State Department envoy to UN climate negotiations. Especially troubling in light of the tragedy in Japan are the Republicans’ proposed cuts to the budget of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association, which would amount to $450 billion more than Obama’s requests.
As if slashing funding weren’t enough, Republicans are also working to dismantle the EPA’s regulatory powers. On Thursday, a Republican-led subcommittee in the House adopted the Energy Tax Prevention Act of 2011 (H.R. 910). The bill would remove the EPA’s authority to regulate greenhouse gas emissions and override the EPA’s 2009 finding that certain gases are harmful to the environment. The bill would remove carbon dioxide, hydrofluorocarbons, methane, nitrous oxide, perfluorocarbons, sulfur hexafluoride, and water vapor from the federal list of air pollutants. A similar bill has been introduced in the Senate (S. 482), and Speaker John Boehner has made it the foundation of his so-called American Energy Initiative.
Republicans claim that environmental regulation is detrimental to the economy and that global warming is an unproven theory. Yet both of these claims are fundamentally flawed. As the New York Times reports, EPA regulations would encourage industries and individuals to reduce their energy consumption, thereby saving money. High gas prices are not due to EPA regulations, and would be practically guaranteed in the future if the GOP refuses to reduce energy dependence on fossil fuels. In addition, investment in clean and renewable energy would be a boon for businesses and manufacturers.
As for global warming, the scientific evidence is overwhelming, and would warrant an entirely separate blog post. However, it may not even be the crucial issue in the debate. If Republicans will deny the evidence for climate change, they cannot deny the photographs of the oil-choked Gulf of Mexico or the destructiveness of mountaintop removal mining. There are immediate environmental and economic consequences to our continued reliance on fossil fuels that are obvious even notwithstanding their contributions to climate change.
This is not to say that the Democrats have been model environmentalists in recent years. Far from it—Democrats from states with powerful coal and oil interests are among the supporters of H.R. 910 and S. 482. Most disappointing of all is President Obama’s failure to push a climate change bill during his first two years in office. Now that the Republicans have gained more power, such a bill would be almost impossible to pass. As his State of the Union address showed, Obama has shifted his interests away from the environment. He now rarely mentions environmental issues, except in the context of economic growth.
Without strong leadership from President Obama, neither legislators nor voters are likely to feel empowered to resist this recent Republican aggression. And by the time we realize the importance of environmental regulation, it may well be too late.