Science Policy & Funding Opinion

Lessons from President George H. W. Bush for the Present Political Environment

The “White House effect” can compel support for science and protect the environment—or damage both.


Shortly after taking office as AGU president, I wrote in a February 2017 From the Prow post, “Recent political events in the US and across the world have created an urgent demand for science in general, and the Earth and space sciences in particular, to take their rightful and needed place in civil society by injecting their cultures of evidence-driven deliberation.” Now as past president looking back over my 2-year term, I am proud of AGU for consistently advancing strong public positions on behalf of science and scientists in the wake of threats to federal science funding, scientific integrity, transparency and collaboration, and sound science policy. And, increasingly, it has been gratifying to see that many AGU members have stepped forward to redouble their engagement in policy and public outreach.

Having just experienced an unprecedented 35-day shutdown of the U.S. federal government, we now find ourselves in an even more uncertain and highly charged political environment, which affects our science in many direct and indirect ways. It wasn’t always that way. The recent passing of President George Herbert Walker Bush, just prior to our Fall Meeting 2018, reminded me of the huge contrast between his tenure and that of our current president. During the week commemorating President Bush’s life, much was said about his compassion, respectfulness, and decency. Democrats, Republicans, and independents alike expressed appreciation for his bipartisan leadership. Less was said, however, about his respect for science and evidence-based science policy and his concern for the environment, legacies that form the basis for many of the environmental policies that continue to this day.

President Bush made several significant contributions to the geosciences and to environmental policy. During his 1988 campaign, Bush promised, “Those who think we are powerless to do anything about the greenhouse effect forget about the ‘White House effect’; as president, I intend to do something about it.” Despite that campaign promise, the White House chief of staff, John Sununu, appeared to be convincing President Bush after he took office that there was sufficient scientific uncertainty about climate change that nothing should be done. On 27 February 1992, I published an op-ed piece in the Christian Science Monitor urging the Bush administration to reverse what then seemed to be its emerging opposition to the proposed United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). I was an assistant scientist at the time, but my boss was supportive of scientists speaking out about policy, an issue that is sadly still a concern for many early-career scientists today.

Bush had championed the development of a “New World Order” after the collapse of the Soviet Union, and I wrote, “How ironic it is that the leader of the ‘New World Order’ is the dead weight of the environmental world order needed for the 21st century.” Mine was only one small voice among many urging him to take seriously the findings of the 1990 First Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). To his credit, President Bush rejected Sununu’s advice, listened to the scientific community, and signed the UNFCCC at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, where he stated, “We must leave this Earth in better condition than we found it, and today this old truth must be applied to new threats facing the resources which sustain us all, the atmosphere and the ocean, the stratosphere and the biosphere. Our village is truly global.”

By signing the United States on to the UNFCCC, a series of the Conferences of the Parties (COPs) was set in motion, including the 2015 COP21, which successfully negotiated the Paris climate accord, and the most recent 2018 COP24, in Poland, which set the rules for implementing the Paris accord. Had the United States not been an early UNFCCC signatory, we may never have achieved these international agreements. Although President Donald Trump has started the process of withdrawing the United States from the Paris agreement and much work must be done by all nations to realize the agreement’s ambitious goals and more, we would have little hope going forward if the seed had not been planted back in 1992. While the IPCC’s first assessment report preceded the UNFCCC, it is fair to say that the subsequent four IPCC assessments and the science behind them, much of which was conducted by AGU scientists, have been stimulated by the need to inform the UNFCCC COPs.

President Bush was also largely responsible for the four U.S. National Climate Assessments to date, including the latest version, released last November. He established the U.S. Global Change Research Program, and Congress passed the Global Change Research Act of 1990, which mandated regular reports on climate change in the United States. Despite President Trump’s personal expression of disbelief of the most recent assessment’s major findings, it was nevertheless released, as required by law, thanks to President Bush, and the current administration did not attempt to significantly alter or censor the scientific findings. Power may hold sway temporarily, but I firmly believe that evidence from the scientific process will eventually prevail.

In addition to President Bush’s legacy regarding climate change policy and the Earth systems science that it demands, perhaps the most important environmental accomplishment of the Bush presidency was the Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990. During the preceding Reagan administration, there had been considerable debate among scientists and policy makers over whether observed acidification of soils and lakes was due to human-derived deposition of sulfur and nitrogen oxides, popularly known as acid rain. An alternative hypothesis was that secondary forests regrowing after agricultural abandonment in the eastern United States early in the 20th century were accumulating base cations in the vegetation, thus leaving the soil and its leachate more acidic. While the latter biogeochemical process does indeed occur, subsequent studies have shown that air pollution was an important acidifying process in the region, as well as in Europe and other regions.

Under the leadership of President Bush and his administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), William K. Reilly, the administration worked with Congress to develop an innovative approach to reducing acid rain. Unlike most previous environmental regulations that relied on command-and-control enforcement, the 1990 Clean Air Act Amendments did not stipulate specific actions required of industry to reduce emissions of sulfur and nitrogen oxides. Instead, it set up a cap-and-trade system that limited total emissions nationally and allowed the private sector to use a pollution permit trading system to find and financially reward the most efficient and cost-effective technologies to achieve the required emissions reductions. The bill passed the Senate on an 89–10 vote and the House on a 401–25 vote. We’ve rarely seen that kind of bipartisanship on environmental legislation since, but the results are continuing to be felt today, as nitrogen and sulfur in wet and dry deposition and in stream water have declined steadily in the eastern United States since the mid-1990s. Thanks to the market-based approach to implementing the emissions reductions, the costs were a small fraction of estimates initially put forward by detractors. At the moment, however, those 3 decades of progress are now at risk.

Unfortunately, President Trump has demonstrated that what Bush called the “White House effect” can be turned in the opposite direction, by ignoring science and being especially dismissive of climate science. The White House, the EPA, and other agencies are now actively undoing policies intended to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and they have proposed to relax regulations on other forms of air pollution. While the AGU community alone cannot reshape the current political environment, we can unite to drive for constructive policy making based on scientific evidence. Indeed, AGU diligently has been working on developing bipartisan support in Congress for Earth and space science, including climate science, and we’ve also been reaching out to federal agency leaders for dialogue. Data-driven policy will have the best chance to improve the lives of people in the face of a changing climate and to protect our environment today and for future generations.

One may not agree with all of the policies of the late President George H. W. Bush, but he understood the value of science, and he listened. The science community must continue to articulate the value of science, to inform policy, and to guide Congress and present and future administrations. Fortunately, we have a historical model for how government can benefit from engaging science, not only with the Bush hallmarks of compassion, respectfulness, and decency but also through his genuine respect for science and evidence-based science policy and his concern for the environment.

—Eric Davidson ([email protected]), Past President, AGU; and Professor and Director of the Appalachian Laboratory, University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science, Frostburg

Citation: Davidson, E. (2019), Lessons from President George H. W. Bush for the present political environment, Eos, 100, Published on 01 February 2019.
Text © 2019. The authors. CC BY-NC-ND 3.0
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