Two days ago, on November 30, 2018, former President George H.W. Bush died peacefully at the age of 94. I believe that Bush was a good man with good intentions, and he served his country honorably. My condolences go out to his family, and the celebration of his life and service is appropriate. But as we honor his life we must also assess Bush’s historical legacy in a rational and cogent way, and that means taking stock of his failures as well. What hasn’t been discussed very much this weekend, as news programs have re-run footage of the Berlin Wall coming down or victory in the Persian Gulf War, is Bush’s legacy on climate change. I would venture to say that no other President has had a greater impact on the issue than Bush did–even more remarkable considering he served only a single four-year term–and, unfortunately, that impact is almost entirely negative. Bush was the first President to establish and entrench denialism as official government policy. As the terrible effects of climate change grow worse every year, we’re still reaping the bitter results of what may come to be remembered as Bush’s single biggest mistake in office.
This failure is touched with irony because Bush himself was apparently not a denier, or at least he was not one at first. Few remember this, but during the 1988 campaign Bush made climate change an issue. He made a number of promises regarding the environment, and specifically mentioned global warming as a problem that the United States would tackle under his administration. Once in power, though, this promise was quickly forgotten. In the early days of his administration, a veritable flood of letters, studies and position papers mostly from industry-funded groups like the deceptively named Global Climate Coalition flowed into the Bush White House, all either trying to shed doubt on the even then undeniable scientific consensus on human-caused climate change, or to urge the government not to take any action to address it. This appears to have been a deliberate attempt to crystallize the Bush administration approach to climate change as soon as possible after Bush’s inauguration, and set denial as the default position, privately if not publicly.
Bush working in the Oval Office in 1990. Most of Bush’s attention was focused on foreign policy; voters punished him in 1992 for his neglect of domestic issues, particularly the economy, which tanked during his term.
The year 1989 seems to have been the turning point for climate change denialism. Though it seems hard to believe today, denial of the fact of global warming or its overwhelmingly human causation was not really a “thing” before that time. Beginning in the 1970s, even major oil companies like Exxon and Shell had in-house scientists extensively researching the phenomenon, and their leaked documents prove that their executives to the highest level knew and accepted the facts of climate change and their role in causing it. Yet sometime in the late 1980s, the oil majors made a deliberate decision to begin muddying the waters of public discussion about climate change, funding elaborate PR campaigns to inject doubt about global warming into the public mind. This public campaign coincided with a less visible one to influence government policy to ignore the issue. Sadly, these efforts paid off in the new Bush administration.
The way Bush handled environmental issues was especially craven. Bush honestly did not care much about the environment, despite what he said in 1988, and attached little importance to issues that he saw mostly as appealing to Democrats and left-leaning voters. As a result, responsibility for environmental issues was laid entirely in the hands of his chief of staff, John H. Sununu. Sununu’s sole preoccupation, at least where environmental issues were concerned, was political optics: he sought to give Bush as much credit as possible for environmental progress while actually doing as little as possible. And Sununu himself was (and remains) an arch climate change denier. I have studied documents from the Bush Presidential Library involving Sununu’s role in climate change policy, and they bear out that at every turn Sununu tried to water down scientific conclusions, magnify statements of uncertainty, and “preserve flexibility” in negotiating with other countries on climate change, which usually translated into refusal by the United States to commit to meaningful reductions in CO2 emissions and trying to scuttle any international agreements that would have that effect.
Sununu, former Governor of New Hampshire, sitting to Bush’s left, was a serious political liability to the President for most of his tenure. In more recent years Sununu has addressed convocations of industry-funded climate change deniers.
Sununu’s rampant denialism had big repercussions, even after Sununu himself was cashiered in December 1991 for wasting public money on private travel perks. In 1992 Bush made a big show of attending what’s usually remembered as the “Earth Summit” in Rio de Janiero, out of which came the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, the first international climate change treaty. While Bush didn’t oppose that treaty–which was ratified only weeks before he was defeated for re-election by Bill Clinton–he did refuse the Convention on Biological Diversity which also came out of the Rio summit, on the grounds that it would hurt the U.S. biomedical industry. The U.S. was the only nation not to ratify it. And the run-up to the UNFCCC, the major treaty, was marked by repeated attempts by American negotiators to strip out of the draft any specific CO2 emissions reduction targets–in other words, to turn the treaty into a toothless statement of aspiration and nothing more. The Bush White House personally directed these negotiations. Bush was determined not to be a leader on climate change.
Bush’s failure to lead on climate change has proved disastrous to the world in the decades since. Had an emissions reduction treaty with real teeth been negotiated in 1992 with strong U.S. support, we would certainly be much closer to holding warming to 1.5º C by 2100 than we are now–which is to say, we’re not on track at all. Furthermore, by demonstrating leadership on climate change and bringing the Republican Party along with him, Bush probably could have prevented industry-funded denialism from metastasizing within the conservative movement and ultimately recognizing concern about climate change as a hallmark of “the enemy,” which is where we are now, especially with a notorious and outspoken climate change denialist sitting in the Oval Office today. Had Bush moved strongly on climate change in 1989, at the moment of maximum opportunity for him politically, he might today be remembered as the best climate change President–instead of one of the worst.
The most fondly remembered moment from the Earth Summit in Rio de Janiero in 1992 was the address by 12-year-old environmental activist Severn Cullis-Suzuki. Too bad Bush wasn’t listening.
Given the high stakes of climate change, George H.W. Bush’s dereliction of his duty with regard to climate change policy has to stand as the paramount failure of his administration. I believe he was generally a good man, and I believe he cared about people. But he didn’t understand what was at stake with climate change, and he fell down on the job of confronting it. As we lay him to rest this week and assess his legacy in American history, we have to be honest about his failures as well as his successes.