|Which US Presidents Were The Worst Protectors of the Earth?|
|Saturday, 16 February 2013 00:00 | Written by Ryan Miga | Article|
Environmental policy has always been complicated. It’s not easy to find a balance between using natural resources to provide the things people need—like jobs, food and housing—and protecting the natural world for its own sake. But some White House residents were downright anti-green. Here are EcoHearth's picks for the least ecological presidents. (Two of them, incidentally, appear in the photograph that illustrates this piece.)
We’ve further narrowed our candidates to presidents in office after 1900, when environmental issues began to play a larger role in US politics—likely as a reaction against the country’s earlier years when coal was burned by the trainload and forests were clear-cut without a second thought. Thus the worst offenders on this list are still more environmentally friendly than, say, James Garfield, who was in office while the American Bison was being hunted to extinction.
Number 5: Richard M. Nixon
Many environmentalists grudgingly admit that Nixon should be credited with signing into law milestone environmental legislation passed by a Democratic Congress—the Clean Air, Clean Water and Endangered Species acts—and creating the US Environmental Protection Agency. This is why he’s not closer to the top of this list. However, he was no environmentalist. His landmark legislation was at least partly a calculated political move to compete with liberal George McGovern in the run-up to the 1972 presidential elections. Once reelected, Nixon promptly took away much of the EPA’s power to do its job. It’s hard to imagine the president who said he’d “rather use a nuclear bomb” to end the Vietnam War truly caring about the environment.
Number 4: Dwight D. Eisenhower
Dwight Eisenhower was a military man—a five-star general—who saw the environment as something to be used, a potential battlefield and not much more. His biggest environmental misstep was championing an interstate highway system, an idea he got from the German autobahn after seeing how it helped the army during World War II.
Unfortunately, the interstate system led to serious long-term environmental problems such as air pollution and habitat destruction. It also fueled America’s car culture and oil dependence. Ike is the reason the US is stuck with a sprawling, environmentally unsustainable highway system instead of cleaner, more efficient public transit. All because tanks ride on roads, not rails.
Number 3: George H. W. Bush
The first President Bush was slightly more committed to protecting the environment than his son—but that’s not saying much. H.W. gets mitigating points for appointing an environmentalist to head the EPA for the first time in the agency’s history. But he refused to sign both the United Nations’ Framework Convention on Climate Change and the Convention on Biodiversity at the 1992 Earth Summit. Bush 1 also favored industrial deregulation over environmental protection. To this end, his regulatory-relief “Council on Competitiveness” slashed environmental standards in the name of supporting industry. Among other pro-business efforts, the council succeeded in weakening the definition of wetlands and opening many formerly protected areas for development.
Number 2: Ronald Reagan
Trees cause more pollution than automobiles do. – Ronald Reagan as president, 1981
For starters, the Gipper famously tore down the solar panels that Jimmy Carter had installed on the roof of the White House, along with dismantling many of the federal energy standards Carter had put in place. Reagan appointed James Watt to head the Department of the Interior; Watt’s feelings on conservation were neatly summed up when he declared, “We will mine more, drill more, cut more timber.”
Anne Gorsuch, Reagan’s appointee to head the Environmental Protection Agency, slashed the EPA’s budget by 22% and relaxed Clean Air Act regulations. To be fair, Reagan does deserve credit for signing the United Nations’ Montreal Protocol, which cut greenhouse-gas emissions. Still—one good decision doesn’t excuse his overall legacy of favoring business interests over a healthy environment.
Number 1: George W. Bush
Like father, like son. OK, so the quote is a cheap shot—but the second Bush administration’s anti-environmental legacy goes far beyond just a public-speaking gaffe. Bush 2 is the runaway winner of the “Least Green President” award. His administration’s anti-environmental rap sheet is so long, it would need a sizable book to do it justice. But here are a few examples: Bush will be remembered as the president who dismissed scientific evidence for global warming. Not only did he refuse to sign on to the international Kyoto Protocol to regulate greenhouse gases, officials at NASA and the EPA have accused his administration of actively suppressing climate-change research and withholding relevant data and conclusions from the public. At a critical time for the environment—a moment when the destructive effects of human industry were most clear—time and again Bush chose short-term political expediency and corporate profits over the long-term health of our planet and its people. He has thereby earned the ignominious designation as our least green president.
Also see: EcoHearth's list of 'The Most Environmental US Presidents.'
[Please comment below if you agree or disagree with our choices—and to suggest different or additional presidents who should be on the list. - Ed.]
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