The State of the Union’s history of empty green promises

February 12, 2013

An aura of excitement and predictability surrounds the president’s annual State of the Union speech: A few days of hyped drama and TV punditry build to a political Woodstock featuring generals, justices, senators, Cabinet secretaries and House members, all under one roof. Up in the balcony, the First Lady plays host to a few iconic citizens who recently shared a heroic moment of fame with America.

Environmentalists are on higher-than-normal alert this year, after President Barack Obama made a sweeping inaugural promise to tackle climate change, an issue he had largely avoided during his first term.

If the president reprises that theme in Tuesday’s speech, he’ll join a long list of predecessors warning that we’re leaving a mess for future generations. And if past is prologue, the green talk and pageantry may be the only things delivered on the president’s lofty words.

In 1993, Bill Clinton assailed the failure of the federal Superfund toxic waste cleanup program. For more than a decade, he complained, attorneys and consultants siphoned off Superfund dollars while few toxic sites got cleaned. “I’d like to use that Superfund to clean up pollution for a change and not just pay lawyers,” Clinton told Congress and the nation.

Twenty years later, EPA still runs a gantlet of insurers, politicians, angry neighbors and, of course, polluters who are less than anxious to help pay for cleanup. More than 1,300 polluted sites remain on the Superfund list, while fewer than 400 “cleaned” sites have been delisted. The lawyers are still getting paid.

In his second inaugural address, Clinton gave a nod to climate change that presaged Obama’s inaugural speech. Failure to act “would put our children and grandchildren at risk,” he said. Since then, the U.S. opted out of the Kyoto Treaty, moved haltingly on fossil-fuel alternatives and saw greenhouse gas legislation crash and burn in 2010. Last month, Obama said, “We will respond to the threat of climate change, knowing that failure to do so would betray our children and future generations.”

Ronald Reagan’s first State of the Union address hit hard at the “incomprehensible” size of America’s nearly $1 trillion debt. While laying out an ambitious, pro-business plan for regulatory rollback, he assured Congress that “we have no intention of dismantling the regulatory agencies, especially those necessary to protect the environment and assure the public health and safety.”

By the time he left office in 1989, the EPA and the Interior Department had been weakened and demoralized, and their initial leaders had been disgraced by scandal. The Environmental Defense Fund’s Fred Krupp told the New York Times that Reagan’s team “accepted the weakest possible rules to protect the environment.” Did the budget-cutting and deregulation bring down that “incomprehensible” debt? It grew by 188 percent during Reagan’s two terms.

Reagan and Richard Nixon both used the annual speech to decry partisanship in environmental politics. “Preservation of our environment is not a liberal or conservative challenge, it’s common sense,” said Reagan in 1984. Fourteen years earlier, Nixon had said, “Restoring Nature to its natural state is a cause beyond party and beyond factions.”

However sincere Reagan and Nixon’s conciliatory remarks might have been, they didn’t give the lie to their own words ‑ we all did: In the 1980 congressional scorecard for the League of Conservation Voters, there was no gaping canyon between how Democrats (54 percent) and Republicans (34 percent) voted on environmental measures. By 2011, the environmental voting gap had grown to 91 percent for Democrats and 11 percent for Republicans.

Both George H.W. Bush and his son touted “clean coal technology” in their State of the Union speeches. Despite lavish public and private investments and a barrage of relentlessly optimistic TV ads from the coal industry, there has been little real advancement. FutureGen, an Energy Department pilot program to capture and store coal-plant emissions, has spent billions with virtually nothing to show for it.

The younger Bush delivered a stunner in his 2006 address. The second-generation oilman declared that America was “addicted to oil” and proposed a 22 percent hike in clean energy research. A month later he visited DOE’s National Renewable Energy Labs. But all the President’s advance men overlooked something: NREL was reeling from a $28 million budget shortfall and had just announced 32 staff layoffs. To save the photo op, DOE restored the jobs. When the visit ended, so did any administration gestures toward clean energy. By the time Bush left office, “Drill, baby, drill!” was a Republican rallying cry.

It wasn’t always this way. More than a century ago, when the State of the Union address was a written “Message to Congress,” Teddy Roosevelt thought big-picture and delivered.

In 1901, TR sent a 20,000-word Message, devoting 10 percent of it to the protection of forests, streams and the establishment of wildlife preserves. Citing haphazard and unrestrained development, he said “the forest and water problems are perhaps the most vital internal questions of the United States.” Roosevelt dedicated the first National Wildlife Refuge less than two years later, and he formed the U.S. Forest Service in 1905.

Lyndon Johnson’s annual good intentions probably turned into action, policy and law more frequently than other presidents’ did. He spoke about parks, protection of species, clean air and clean water. All advanced during LBJ’s presidency and during the Nixon years that followed, thanks in large part to a national awakening on environmental issues. Most remarkable is a 1965 reference in Johnson’s “Special Message to Congress” – a follow-up to his broadcast speech: “This generation has altered the composition of the atmosphere on a global scale through radioactive materials and a steady increase in carbon dioxide from the burning of fossil fuels.”

By the late 1980s, the United States began to come to grips with the radioactive issue, launching a massive cleanup of nuclear weapons sites and halting nuclear weapons tests. After 48 years, we’ll still waiting on carbon dioxide.

With the effects of climate change staring us in the face ‑ from the melting Arctic to the parched Farm Belt to the devastated beach towns in New York and New Jersey ‑ it’s hardly the time for Obama to uphold the sad presidential tradition of ignoring green intentions.

“I think he is serious about making an effort,” former Obama aide Billy Pizer told Politico last month. “Real estate in major speeches is valuable.”

It is indeed valuable. But history shows that empty promises in sweeping speeches are a dime a dozen.

PHOTO: A woman wearing a mask rides past smoking chimneys and cooling towers of a steel plant in Beijing, January 17, 2013. REUTERS/Suzie Wong

No comments so far

We welcome comments that advance the story through relevant opinion, anecdotes, links and data. If you see a comment that you believe is irrelevant or inappropriate, you can flag it to our editors by using the report abuse links. Views expressed in the comments do not represent those of Reuters. For more information on our comment policy, see