By the time he died last month, Russell Train was largely forgotten. Most Americans didn't know that, as The New York Times' obituary said, he helped shape "the world's first comprehensive program for scrubbing the skies and waters of pollution, ensuring the survival of ecologically significant plants and animals, and safeguarding citizens from exposure to toxic chemicals."
Here's the really surprising part: Train was a Republican. He served as the first chairman of the White House Council on Environmental Quality under one Republican president, Richard Nixon, and as the second head of the Environmental Protection Agency under another, Gerald Ford. After that, he ran the U.S. affiliate of the World Wildlife Fund.
Back then, believe it or not, there was no conflict between being a Republican (or a conservative) and favoring environmental protection. Nixon signed the Clean Air Act of 1970 and the Clean Water Act of 1972, two of the most vital anti-pollution measures ever, as well as the Endangered Species Act, which aimed at preventing the extinction of birds, animals and other living things.
"Clean air, clean water, open spaces—these should once again be the birthright of every American," Nixon said unabashedly.
But today, "Republican environmentalist" is an oxymoron. During his presidential campaign, Newt Gingrich called for abolishing the EPA. Rick Santorum decried a "reign of environmental terror." Michele Bachmann vowed that in her administration, "the EPA will have doors locked and lights turned off."
The 2012 party platform says federal agencies should "properly and correctly apply environmental laws and regulations, always in support of economic development, job creation, and American prosperity and leadership"—not, you will notice, safeguarding human health or protecting the planet.
In his convention speech, Mitt Romney got in line with GOP dogma. "President Obama promised to begin to slow the rise of the oceans and heal the planet," he noted with a look of disbelief, evoking jeers and laughter. "My promise"—long pause—"is to help you and your family." You and your family, after all, have nothing to gain from environmental protections.
This radical shift has come about only in recent years, precipitated in part by climate change. Faced with the specter of a planet heating up from the burning of fossil fuels, conservatives have taken refuge in obstinate denial. Their eagerness to latch onto any sliver of evidence casting doubt on the phenomenon makes it plain: Nothing can change their minds.
They no longer see the environment as a realm in which Republicans can and should offer tightly focused, science-based solutions that balance vital interests such as human health and economic growth. They see it as an arena where the only option is to dismantle regulations.
It was not always that way. President George H.W. Bush, who promised to be "the environmental president," supported a revision of the Clean Air Act to reduce air pollution, curb acid rain, and protect the ozone layer.
In 2008, John McCain proposed a cap-and-trade system to combat global warming, warning that "time is short and the dangers are great." Today, no candidate taking that position could possibly be nominated.
William Reilly, who ran the EPA under the first President Bush, sounded despairing notes when I called him to ask about the shift in his party. As co-chair of the commission that investigated the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, he got no support from House Republicans when he testified on the need for better regulation of offshore drilling. "The level of vitriol was such that I was surprised," Reilly said.
The public might not be. Environmental concerns are not the reason Romney is trailing in the polls, but they're not helping. A recent The Economist/YouGov poll found that on this issue, independent voters trust President Barack Obama over his challenger by a whopping margin of 49 percent to 19 percent.
Republicans once performed the valuable task of insisting that alleged environmental harms be proved, not merely assumed, and that solutions be market-friendly, carefully tailored and cost-effective. The give-and-take between them and Democrats yielded better remedies.
Today, they have only one response to any environmental concerns, which resembles what Mark Twain said about a cat that sits on a hot stove lid: "She will never sit down on a hot lid again—and that is well; but also she will never sit down on a cold one anymore."