In New Book, Wellesley Professor Traces the Evolution of America’s Environmental Policies

William Ruckelshaus being sworn in as first EPA administrator.
Photo provided by Richard M. Nixon Presidential Library
December 19, 2018

A new book by James Morton Turner, associate professor of environmental studies at Wellesley, and Andrew C. Isenberg, professor of American history at the University of Kansas, traces an arc of skepticism towards environmental concerns in America.

In The Republican Reversal: Conservatives and the Environment from Nixon to Trump, the authors document the history of environmental leadership in this country, specifically how the Republican Party, once a champion of environmental conservation, has shifted its actions and perspectives over the past decades, and how that has affected the United States’ current climate policies and politics.

Turner and Isenberg have created a teaching website, with help from Wellesley students this past summer, of primary sources, teaching materials, and other resources that correspond with the content in their book. They also published an opinion piece on WBUR's Cognoscenti on how we are seeing the change in the debates over climate policy play out in our government today.


In the book, you discuss the Republican Party’s transformation from a party that championed the environment to one that views environmental regulations with skepticism. What prompted this change?

Jay Turner: It is important to remember just how strong the Republican Party’s commitment to environmental reform once was. In the 1972 Republican Party platform, Republicans celebrated their work on clean air and water and sharply criticized congressional Democrats for slowing down the party’s agenda. Indeed, it was Nixon who signed into law the Clean Air Act and established the Environmental Protection Agency through executive order.

But starting in the late 1970s, that commitment began to unravel, most dramatically with the election of Ronald Reagan, who sought to weaken environmental regulations. The most immediate drivers were the oil shocks of the 1970s and the resulting economic slowdown. That thrust concerns about jobs and constraints on energy production to the forefront of public attention. 

But looking at the big picture, we point to three broader factors that contributed to what we describe as the Republican “reversal” on the environment. First was the rise of a conservative ideology rooted in a faith in the free market, which gained new traction among Republicans in the 1970s and 1980s. Second was the rise of conservative interest groups, which played a key role in raising questions about the urgency of environmental issues and protesting regulatory action. Third was the changing structure of environmental issues—as the concerns became increasingly global and abstract, they seemed less urgent to Republicans.  

How do you see those factors influencing the current administration?

Turner: The most obvious example is the current administration’s position on climate change and its efforts to undermine the Paris Climate Accord. Trump has made it clear that he sees climate change as unimportant relative to his “America first” energy policy that puts coal, oil, and natural gas first, along with the industries that support them. It is a position that completely disregards the work of climate scientists and the international community’s efforts to address climate change. 

But it would be a mistake to focus only on climate change and energy policy. The Trump administration has taken numerous steps to weaken the basic laws that protect clean air and water in the United States. Just this week, they proposed reducing the scope of the Clean Water Act by 20 percent, categorically excluding ephemeral streams from antipollution regulations. And many are expecting the administration to weaken regulations on mercury emissions from power plants in the coming week. These are rollbacks of the basic laws that have dramatically improved public health in the United States since the 1970s. 

Do you believe that the Trump administration's approach reflects the philosophy of the Republican Party as a whole?

Turner: I try to be hopeful. I think there is a big gap between where the Republican leaders have been leading the party and where most Republican voters want it to go. This is pretty clear on the environment.  Polls indicate that on the environment, most voters—Republican and Democrats—want a return to the consensus-based, bipartisan politics of the 1970s. And there are signs that concern for the environment remains important to some more moderate Republicans. 

Republican legislators have blocked much of Trump’s proposed cuts to the EPA’s budget largely because they were concerned about the impact on clean air, clean water, and toxic waste management programs in their states. And, recently, Republicans have joined with Democrats to introduce a carbon-tax proposal to rein in greenhouse gases and address climate change. 

What would you say is the most immediate consequence of the current administration’s position?

Turner: Well, from my perspective, the most immediate threat is that the United States is missing its chance to help slow global warming, which is driving dramatic changes in our climate system in the coming decades. In failing to take significant steps towards addressing climate change, we are missing more immediate opportunities, too.

One is the chance to build a clean energy economy that will provide jobs and sustainable energy in the United States. And while transitioning away from fossil fuels will benefit the climate in the long term, we often forget that it will also benefit human health—fewer heart attacks, less asthma, and premature death—in the near term. 

Do you believe that the U.S might have lost the confidence of other countries in taking steps to protect the climate?

Turner: It sure seems that way, at least with respect to the Trump administration’s disregard both for climate science and the Paris Climate Accord. That said, at least some countries have fallen in line with the administration’s skepticism on climate, including Brazil, Russia, and Saudi Arabia. They banded together to water down the United Nations’ language on the most recent climate report.

Most surprisingly, news reports indicate that despite the administration’s position, behind the scenes U.S. negotiators continued to play a productive role negotiating the next steps in the implementation of the Paris Climate Accord last week—which is surprising, given Trump’s commitment to pulling the U.S. out. 

Photo: William Ruckelshaus being sworn in as first EPA administrator, with President Richard Nixon, Jill Ruckelshaus, and Chief Justice Warren Burger, December 4, 1970.