During the recent blast of impeachment, Iran and war powers’ recriminations, there was this: President Donald Trump marked the 50th anniversary of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) — arguably America’s most important environmental statute — by attempting to gut it. Specifically, the president proposed changes to the NEPA process that would remove the requirement to consider “indirect,” “direct” and “cumulative” effects on the environment.
The primary goal of these changes is to insulate proposed infrastructure projects from the consideration of climate change. Under the new Trump rules, for example, rising sea levels would no longer be taken into account. Ironically, the U.S. Navy — which understands the science and magnitude of climate change — is already planning for sea-level rise with respect to its own infrastructure. By barring consideration of these undeniable effects, billions of taxpayer dollars could be wasted on ill-conceived infrastructure necessary to America’s national security.
Trump’s tired jobs-versus-the-environment rhetoric ignores NEPA’s bipartisan mission and history. NEPA was conceived to help resolve conflict, to harmonize protection of the environment with private development interests, and to give impacted communities a voice. The late Lynton Caldwell, one of NEPA’s intellectual forefathers, wrote that the law is “future directed, furthering values that in some measure have long been present in American society.”
NEPA’s legislative history illustrates what’s at stake. In the 1950s, citizens had little or no say in the interstate highway system’s bulldozing of neighborhoods and sensitive lands, as well as the environmental impacts of oil and gas development, sprawling suburbs and unsustainable agricultural practices. In 1962, Americans were shaken up by Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring” and again by the Santa Barbara oil spill of 1969.
Against the backdrop of the Vietnam War, members of Congress sought to address these concerns by requiring a rigorous, transparent process for weighing both the short and long-term environmental consequences of our actions. Washington U.S. Sen. Henry M. Jackson and Maine Sen. Ed Muskie — both hoping to become president — engaged in a legislative competition that forged a stronger bill. On the House side, Rep. John Dingell led the charge, and President Richard Nixon was happy to sign the bill. Back then, protecting the environment was seen by both parties as being in the public interest.
Today, the Seattle-based Henry M. Jackson Foundation works to highlight climate change as a national-security threat. We hope to depoliticize the subject and encourage a bipartisan agreement on the need to move quickly. Otherwise, rising temperatures will exacerbate political and military conflicts around the world, thereby endangering our men and women in uniform, not to mention the human race.
NEPA is the perfect model for this sort of fact-based, inclusive, long-term thinking.
It was forged at a time when our citizens and leaders were beginning to understand the value of healthy air, water and forests, all resources that are jeopardized by climate change. Now is precisely the wrong time to deny scientific facts and sow political division. America chose a different path a half-century ago, and it can do so again.