In the past month, President Obama has announced the designation of three new areas as national monuments, totaling over a million acres of newly protected land. This action adds to 16 national monuments he previously created under the Antiquities Act of 1906, including the largest reserve ever created, the Pacific Remote Islands National Monument. While some members of Congress and commentators see these new monuments as overreaching federal land grabs, they solidify the president’s very significant environmental legacy. If we agree with Pope Francis’s comments in his recent encyclical Laudato si’ that we have “maltreated” the earth, then we should celebrate these changes, for they will ensure natural bounty and maintain astonishing landscapes and ecosystems for generations to come.
Yet Obama’s environmental actions have brought to light a troubling issue — there is sharp political polarization in the U.S. over the protection of our one and only planet. This hasn’t always been this way.
Two of the most significant pieces of environmental legislation in this country — the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act — passed in both houses of Congress with broad bipartisan support. It was Republican President Theodore Roosevelt who signed the Antiquities Act, which gives the president the authority to protect vast tracts of land based on historical or ecological significance, into law. President Reagan’s administration was vitally important for the passage of the Montreal Protocol, the first international agreement that effectively set quotas to limit pollution of certain gases in the atmosphere.
The times have changed. A recent Supreme Court ruling sent an important EPA rule back for review, and was loudly celebrated by Republican Senator Lisa Murkowski. The rule would have limited the amount of mercury pollution that power plants can emit. For some, maintaining mercury in the air and water is a good thing — even though the cost assessment found that the rule would cost power plants $10 billion while saving the economy $37 to $90 billion annually.
Polarization on environmental issues has been evident from the beginning of this administration, beginning with Republican opposition to stimulus spending that supported renewable energy companies. Republicans opposed these subsidies based on cost and claims that the spending was frivolous. Yet these investments proved to be one of very few instances where government spending generated positive returns. Right-wing opposition on environmental measures continued with fuel efficiency standards, designation of protected lands, new pollution regulation and more recently the EPA’s proposed rule to curb carbon emissions — which might just set us a step closer to maintaining a stable climate and ensuring a prosperous future.
Over a range of issues, partisan division can be greatly beneficial. Different views maintain a balance to ensure that the country doesn’t veer too far in one direction or the other. Yet on the environment, there is a clear dichotomy. One party, still denying climate change and attempting to block productive action, is betting against our future, the planet and future generations. This should not remain the status quo. As the government considers rules to limit carbon, let’s hope conservatives remember this history.
Sebastian Nicholls is a rising senior in the School of Foreign Service.Forward Footprint appears every other Thursday.
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