The Environmental Legacy of President George H.W. Bush

President George H.W. Bush passed away late on Friday night at the age of 94, eight months after his wife of seventy-three years, Barbara. He left behind many legacies, although he himself preferred not to think about the “L-word.” He was a soldier, a statesman, a husband, a father, and a (great)-grandfather, yet few remember that he was also an environmentalist.


In a 1988 campaign speech, Bush said, “Those who think we’re powerless to do anything about the greenhouse effect are forgetting about the White House effect.” He later fulfilled this promise by combating acid rain and its causes.


The Clean Air Act was passed in 1990 with collaboration between President Bush and the Canadian Prime Minister at the time, Brian Mulroney. According to Time, Bush and Mulroney became friends during this process, and Mulroney will prepare a eulogy for Bush’s funeral on Wednesday.


The amendments that were signed in November 1990 contained measures to protect the ozone layer, improve air quality, and reduce the release of toxins that were causing acid rain. These amendments did not eliminate acid rain, but they successfully reduced acid rain significantly and allowed North American bodies of water to recover from the damage. To demonstrate the effect that these policies had, the Washington Post published an op-ed shortly after Bush’s death entitled, “We can breathe easier — literally — thanks to George H.W. Bush.”


Perhaps Bush’s work on the Clean Air Act is the greatest environmental accomplishment of any Republican president. Even better, Bush stuck to his free-market principles when working on this policy with a Democratic-controlled Congress and used a cap-and-trade strategy to reduce emissions without sweeping government regulations. This policy allowed companies to buy and sell emission allowances as “caps” on emissions gradually reduced.



Throughout his presidency, Bush worked to balance two sides of his party: the environmentally-conscious and business interests. His administration’s Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) ultimately prevented the construction of a dam in Colorado that would have destroyed a natural canyon. On the other hand, he did pursue a controversial drilling policy that was expected to reduce wetland acreage when under pressure from powerful players in the energy industry.


Regardless, because of Bush’s bipartisan work with Congress and Canadian allies, the reduction of chlorofluorocarbons has greatly protected the ozone layer and acid rain is no longer our most pressing environmental problem. Even though it was a tough balance for the 41st president, his environmental legacy should be known as one of cleaner air and more importantly, pragmatic action with unwavering principles.

When we look back on the life of Bush 41, our first thoughts probably won’t be the environment. We will remember a dedicated soldier who survived a plane crash, a dedicated public servant who filled numerous roles, and a president who perhaps was “too nice” to be commander-in-chief. We will remember how he spent his life devoted to his first love, Barbara Pierce, and their ever-growing family. If we take away one lesson from George Herbert Walker Bush, maybe we could all try to be more devoted to our values yet open for compromise if it will truly do good.

Karly MatthewsComment