Bush 41 and climate change.

George Herbert Walker Bush as CIA Director

George Herbert Walker Bush. The world has completed a week of mourning and celebration of a life well lived and a presidency well executed, through an extraordinary series of memorial services and observances, and through millions of words of retrospective.

The latter covered a range of subjects: the man’s military service in World War II. His work in Congress. His stints in China and at the CIA. His vice-presidency under Reagan. But those of us with ears tuned to the environmental-frequency dogwhistle were not left out. Want a sample? Just google George Herbert Walker Bush and the environment and click on NEWS. You’ll find a smorgasbord of material to choose from. To give the flavor, here are a few words, these from Fred Krupp, the president of the Environmental Defense Fund:

“President George Herbert Walker Bush will be remembered for a great many proud achievements and outstanding qualities. He knew that our country matters far more than political party or personal ambition, and that the national interest demands that we protect America’s precious natural heritage. And he knew that there is no inherent conflict between environmental progress and economic progress, because the well-being of the nation requires both.

[He worked] closely with Environmental Defense Fund and lawmakers from both parties to secure passage of the Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990, which helped turn back the acid rain pollution that was devastating the lakes and forests of the northeastern United States…

…[The] cap-and-trade system he championed has been phenomenally effective in cutting the sulfur dioxide pollution that causes acid rain, reducing national average levels of that pollution by 88 percent since 1990…

 … President Bush and his team [worked as well on] the 1992 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, which his administration was essential in negotiating. As he said, ‘We know that the future of the earth must not be compromised. We bear a sacred trust in our tenancy here.’ President Bush’s legacy is enormous, and we have much to learn from it today.”

There’s much more in this (generally) positive vein[1].

It’s worthwhile to dig a bit deeper, and ask, why did this president – an oilman! – get behind the climate change issue (and others), when, say, some of his successors have not been so strongly engaged?

A full answer would demand more than a few words in a blog, but perhaps the president’s one-year tenure as director of the Central Intelligence Agency is revealing. That tenure was interesting in and of itself, but for present purposes it suffices to note:

George Herbert Walker Bush understood how and why national security mattered. He was attracted to the job and the responsibility in the first place. The world offers responsibilities that enjoy the limelight, and others that are in the shadows. Recall that at this point in the Mr. Bush’s career, it wasn’t obvious that a presidency would lie in his future, and most people would not have considered a clearly-short-term position working for America’s only unelected president to be an obvious path to that brass ring, or to any prominent future.

He saw intelligence as a vital guide/first step to national security. Intelligence has long influenced history’s outcomes, but the CIA was only established belatedly, in the immediate aftermath of World War II. Pearl Harbor had taught the United States an important lesson at terrible cost; at the outset of the Cold War, the United States was determined not to be surprised in such a terrible way again. Presidents have varied in their grasp of this reality.

He recognized intelligence had to be gathered, interpreted by others – a large number of others. Seven billion people can get into a lot of mischief very quickly, whether at the instruction of their leaders or while their leaders’ backs are turned. The vital role of governments in providing societal stability can also make them sometimes slow to react and respond. It’s therefore important to see trouble coming – and see it while it’s still a long way off. Take immigration – just one example of many. Social disruption of any kind – poverty, joblessness, terrorism, war, genocide, famine, natural disasters, and more – can trigger sudden, large movements of people, generating refugee populations and flashpoints at national borders and straining the global social fabric. Keeping tabs on brewing troubles, incipient hotspots, is labor-intensive and can’t be accomplished domestically. It takes a global reach.

He trusted those others, including career civil servants. Virtually all of us function essentially all the time, with respect to every aspect of life, on the basis of secondhand information, and on trust. To operate otherwise, especially to be constantly making case-by-case decisions about whether to trust information provided by others, or the intentions of others, is hugely costly – not just in dollars, but in time, imposed stress, limits to our aspirations and more.

Such caution may be necessary. We’re all familiar with the idea of trust but verify. This expression is often attributed to President Reagan, but he only popularized it, by using it frequently in the context of nuclear disarmament. Why? Because it’s in origin a Russian proverb of long standing.

Not surprising to learn that it comes from a culture where trust has been in short supply, and for cause. By contrast, trust in America has historically been high, though our trust in institutions and each other has been declining in recent decades and has plummeted over the past two years.

George Bush understood (without using that particular label) that environmental intelligence also mattered to national security. Even then, he could see worldwide the effects of drought, desertification, floods, famine, and other natural events in displacing entire populations and turning stability into unrest and disruption.

Adding all this together, a decade later, then-President Bush was prepared to grasp the implications of climate change as articulated in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s, and ensure that America took the lead in developing, and continually improving the necessary environmental intelligence to characterize the threat, signing the Global Change Research Act of 1990 into law, and leading the U.S. delegation at the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED), held in Rio de Janeiro from 3 to 14 June 1992. He trusted the input from scientists on this as much as he’d trusted the analysis of his own CIA years earlier.


A closing vignette: recent news coverage noted that the Nation’s leading science agency on climate change matters has yet to brief the current president.

Don’t be too hasty to point an accusing finger. Might not be that surprising. Presidents are busy.

For some time during the corresponding run-up to Rio, President Bush himself hadn’t received any such briefing. But at one point, then NOAA administrator John Knauss was instructed by Pennsylvania Avenue to represent the U.S. at a preparatory meeting in Oslo. All of us involved knew he was being asked to present and put a happy face on an unpopular U.S. stance about some particular. But Knauss was a good sport. He sent a message to the White House: if he was going to represent the President’s views, he’d like to know firsthand what they were. The result was substantive, one-on-one (!!) meeting between the two. (At the time, a photograph of that circulated, but if it exists on the web today it’s in some obscure nook or cranny. Haven’t been able to surface it.

Different times!


[1]Of course, this being the year 2019, it’s possible to find negative media coverage of President Bush’s environmental tenure as well. However, these are in the decided minority – in part reflecting an underlying reality, but in part because people tend to grade on a curve.

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