George H. W. Bush Administration and Environment

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On november 15, 1990, President George H. W. Bush signed amendments of the Clear Air Act-an act written by congressional Democrats-into law, and declared in the East Wing of the White House that “polluters must pay.” While campaigning against democrat Michael Dukakis of Massachusetts, Bush accused his opponent of being lax on pollution in Boston Harbor, declaring that Dukakis delayed and caused the harbor to get “dirtier and dirtier.” President Bush also declared in 1988, “I am an environmentalist; always have been and always will be.” Bush claimed he would aggressively enforce environmental laws and standards. In many ways, Bush realized this campaign promise. Recognizing their vital, long-term importance in sustainable development, he created a “no net loss” policy toward wetlands and development that required the protection of wetlands or the creation of new ones. President Bush attended the Rio Environmental Summit in Brazil in 1992, but did not ultimately sign its final provisions. The famous summit introduced the term sustainable development into common speech, which means creating conditions for economic development that do not leave developing countries worse off environmentally than when they began.

Hesitations on Policy

Even as he strongly advocated for environmental protections and seemed to have a personal interest in the environment, President Bush also had reservations about the possible negative consequences of environmental policies that could be implemented too quickly. He claimed in 1992, “We cannot keep some of the extremes of the environmental movement happy because I believe that a sound environment can go hand-in-hand with reasonable growth.” President Bush was particularly concerned about how strict environmental provisions might affect jobs, especially in the lumber industries of the northwest where “40,000 people could be thrown out of work.” When asked about the environment in a presidential debate, he refused to “burden the automobile industry with the kind of costs the Europeans wanted us to put on the industry.” He also mentioned the American families who would be affected by overly protective policies toward the Spotted Owl, a symbol of the environmental movement as well as popular resistance to some environmental policies that affected jobs. Bush seemed determined to protect the environment in principle; but he was wary of the political consequences of signing international agreements and enforcing policies that might in the short term risk the jobs of American voters.


  1. Barilleaux and M. Rozell, Power and Prudence: The Presidency of George H. W. Bush (Texas A and M University Press, 2004);
  2. Marc Davis, George W. Bush (Compass Point Book, 2002);
  3. Richard Himelfarb and Rosanna Perotti, , Principle Over Politics?: The Domestic Policy of the George H. W. Bush Presidency (Greenwood Publishing Group, 2004).

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