LAWRENCE — It likely will surprise many people today that the Republican Party decades ago took pride in crafting and passing significant environmental legislation, such as creating the Environmental Protection Agency and the Clean Air Act, according to a University of Kansas historian.
Andrew Isenberg, Hall Distinguished Professor of American History, is co-author of a new book, "The Republican Reversal: Conservatives and the Environment from Nixon to Trump," which examines how the party transformed its stance on environmental issues and what it means today for environmental policy. Isenberg's co-author on the Harvard University Press publication is James Turner, associate professor of environmental studies at Wellesley College.
"We were trying to figure out what motivated that change. The short answer is the rise of conservativism. There were lots of moderate Republicans in the 1970s and into the 1990s, but that moderate faction of the Republican Party has declined significantly as conservatives have risen to power," Isenberg said. "That really has changed the party's position on environmental regulations."
The researchers chronicle the evolution of environmental policies under Republican presidents from Nixon to Trump.
Nixon generally has a green legacy that includes signing the National Environmental Policy Act of 1970, the Clean Air Act and the Endangered Species Act. He created the EPA by executive order. He did veto the Clean Water Act — reportedly because he objected to the price tag — but Congress with the help of moderate Republicans was able to override the veto.
"Was he genuinely ideologically committed to goals of environmentalism? Probably not," Isenberg said. "But he was president at a moment when the environmental movement was politically at its strongest."
Ronald Reagan had a similarly pro-environmental record as governor of California between 1967 and 1975, but he was a more ideologically committed conservative. He began inserting more caustic dismissals of environmental regulations and environmentalism, Isenberg said. The energy crises of the 1970s and 1980s put conservatives more in alliance with pro-business, libertarian and anti-federalist voters, who linked commercial interests of large corporate donors with states'-rights activism and Main Street regulatory distrust.
George W. Bush's policies were not friendly to environmental regulations, but his administration did use rhetoric that at least appeared to be friendly to environmental regulations, Isenberg said, such as calling new timber laws the Healthy Forests Initiative and focusing on the Clear Skies Initiative.
"This is where the Trump administration is completely different," Isenberg said. "He's thrown that strategy out the window."
During his time in office so far, Donald Trump has backed out of the international Paris climate pact and had the EPA roll back Obama-era climate change policies that required oil and gas companies to monitor and mitigate releases of methane from wells and other operations.
Despite this swing in recent decades, Isenberg said in the book they point out that some of the environmental laws that date back to Nixon still remain in place.
"Those laws are also written in such a way that they are very clear. It's difficult to go against that, even if you are staunchly opposed. There's not enough support to undo them," Isenberg said. "In that sense, you can say it's a positive story for environmentalists because those laws have stayed on the books despite a lot of effort to undo them."
However, the other product of this polarized political environment is how environmental policies have tended to swing back and forth depending on which party is in the White House, even though according to public opinion polls, environmental regulation is less divisive an issue among average voters, Isenberg said.
"I think in the partisan environment that we are in right now, what you have are some Republican voters who want stronger protection of the environment," he said, "but because Democrats are advocating for it, they are opposed to specific proposals. What most people want, I think, is a bipartisan consensus on the environment like we had in the 1970s."
Photo: Beach in Galveston, Texas, in 2005. U.S. government work.