American cities developed under relatively quiescent climatic conditions. A gradual rise in average global temperatures during the 19th and 20th centuries had a negligible impact on how urban Americans experienced the weather. Much more significant were the dramatic changes in urban form and social organization that meditated the relationship between routine weather fluctuations and the lives of city dwellers. Overcoming weather-related impediments to profit, comfort, and good health contributed to many aspects of urbanization, including population migration to Sunbelt locations, increased reliance on fossil fuels, and comprehensive re-engineering of urban hydrological systems. Other structural shifts such as sprawling development, intensification of the built environment, socioeconomic segregation, and the tight coupling of infrastructural networks were less directly responsive to weather conditions but nonetheless profoundly affected the magnitude and social distribution of weather-related risks. Although fatalities resulting from extreme meteorological events declined in the 20th century, the scale of urban disruption and property damage increased. In addition, social impacts became more concentrated among poorer Americans, including many people of color, as Hurricane Katrina tragically demonstrated in 2005. Through the 20th century, cities responded to weather hazards through improved forecasting and systematic planning for relief and recovery rather than alterations in metropolitan design. In recent decades, however, growing awareness and concern about climate change impacts have made volatile weather more central to urban planning.
From its inception as a nation in 1789, the United States has engaged in an environmental diplomacy that has included attempts to gain control of resources, as well as formal diplomatic efforts to regulate the use of resources shared with other nations and peoples. American environmental diplomacy has sought to gain control of natural resources, to conserve those resources for the future, and to protect environmental amenities from destruction. As an acquirer of natural resources, the United States has focused on arable land as well as on ocean fisheries, although around 1900, the focus on ocean fisheries turned into a desire to conserve marine resources from unregulated harvesting. The main 20th-century U.S. goal was to extend beyond its borders its Progressive-era desire to utilize resources efficiently, meaning the greatest good for the greatest number for the longest time. For most of the 20th century, the United States was the leader in promoting global environmental protection through the best science, especially emphasizing wildlife. Near the end of the century, U.S. government science policy was increasingly out of step with global environmental thinking, and the United States often found itself on the outside. Most notably, the attempts to address climate change moved ahead with almost every country in the world except the United States. While a few monographs focus squarely on environmental diplomacy, it is safe to say that historians have not come close to tapping the potential of the intersection of the environmental and diplomatic history of the United States.
Richard N. L. Andrews
Between 1964 and 2017, the United States adopted the concept of environmental policy as a new focus for a broad range of previously disparate policy issues affecting human interactions with the natural environment. These policies ranged from environmental health, pollution, and toxic exposure to management of ecosystems, resources, and use of the public lands, environmental aspects of urbanization, agricultural practices, and energy use, and negotiation of international agreements to address global environmental problems. In doing so, it nationalized many responsibilities that had previously been considered primarily state or local matters. It changed the United States’ approach to federalism by authorizing new powers for the federal government to set national minimum environmental standards and regulatory frameworks with the states mandated to participate in their implementation and compliance. Finally, it explicitly formalized administrative procedures for federal environmental decision-making with stricter requirements for scientific and economic justification rather than merely administrative discretion. In addition, it greatly increased public access to information and opportunities for input, as well as for judicial review, thus allowing citizen advocates for environmental protection and appreciative uses equal legitimacy with commodity producers to voice their preferences for use of public environmental resources. These policies initially reflected widespread public demand and broad bipartisan support. Over several decades, however, they became flashpoints, first, between business interests and environmental advocacy groups and, subsequently, between increasingly ideological and partisan agendas concerning the role of the federal government. Beginning in the 1980s, the long-standing Progressive ideal of the “public interest” was increasingly supplanted by a narrative of “government overreach,” and the 1990s witnessed campaigns to delegitimize the underlying evidence justifying environmental policies by labeling it “junk science” or a “hoax.” From the 1980s forward, the stated priorities of environmental policy vacillated repeatedly between presidential administrations and Congresses supporting continuation and expansion of environmental protection and preservation policies versus those seeking to weaken or even reverse protections in favor of private-property rights and more damaging uses of resources. Yet despite these apparent shifts, the basic environmental laws and policies enacted during the 1970s remained largely in place: political gridlock, in effect, maintained the status quo, with the addition of a very few innovations such as “cap and trade” policies. One reason was that environmental policies retained considerable latent public support: in electoral campaigns, they were often overshadowed by economic and other issues, but they still aroused widespread support in their defense when threatened. Another reason was that decisions by the courts also continued to reaffirm many existing policies and to reject attempts to dismantle them. With the election of Donald Trump in 2016, along with conservative majorities in both houses of Congress, US environmental policy came under the most hostile and wide-ranging attack since its origins. More than almost any other issue, the incoming president targeted environmental policy for rhetorical attacks and budget cuts, and sought to eradicate the executive policies of his predecessor, weaken or rescind protective regulations, and undermine the regulatory and even the scientific capacity of the federal environmental agencies. In the early 21st century, it is as yet unclear how much of his agenda will actually be accomplished, or whether, as in past attempts, much of it will ultimately be blocked by Congress, the courts, public backlash, and business and state government interests seeking stable policy expectations rather than disruptive deregulation.
During the Holocene, the present geological epoch, an increasing portion of humans began to manipulate the reproduction of plants and animals in a series of environmental practices known as agriculture. No other ecological relationship sustains as many humans as farming; no other has transformed the landscape to the same extent. The domestication of plants by American Indians followed the end of the last glacial maximum (the Ice Age). About eight thousand years ago, the first domesticated maize and squash arrived from central Mexico, spreading to every region and as far north as the subarctic boreal forest. The incursion of Europeans into North America set off widespread deforestation, soil depletion, and the spread of settlement, followed by the introduction of industrial machines and chemicals. A series of institutions sponsored publically funded research into fertilizers and insecticides. By the late 19th century, writers and activists criticized the technological transformation of farming as destructive to the environment and rural society. During the 20th century, wind erosion contributed to the depopulation of much of the Great Plains. Vast projects in environmental engineering transformed deserts into highly productive regions of intensive fruit and vegetable production. Throughout much of the 19th and 20th centuries, access to land remained limited to whites, with American Indians, African Americans, Latinas/os, Chinese, and peoples of other ethnicities attempting to gain farms or hold on to the land they owned. Two broad periods describe the history of agriculture and the environment in that portion of North America that became the United States. In the first, the environment dominated, forcing humans to adapt during the end of thousands of years of extreme climate variability. In the second, institutional and technological change became more significant, though the environment remained a constant factor against which American agriculture took shape. A related historical pattern within this shift was the capitalist transformation of the United States. For thousands of years, households sustained themselves and exchanged some of what they produced for money. But during the 19th century among a majority of American farmers, commodities took over the entire purpose of agriculture, transforming environments to reflect commercial opportunity.
Energy systems have played a significant role in U.S. history; some scholars claim that they have determined a number of other developments. From the colonial period to the present, Americans have shifted from depending largely on wood and their own bodies, as well as the labor of draft animals; to harnessing water power; to building steam engines; to extracting fossil fuels—first coal and then oil; to distributing electrical power through a grid. Each shift has been accompanied by a number of other striking changes, especially in the modern period associated with fossil fuels. By the late 19th century, in part thanks to new energy systems, Americans were embracing industrialization, urbanization, consumerism, and, in a common contemporary phrase, “the annihilation of space and time.” Today, in the era of climate change, the focus tends to be on the production or supply side of energy systems, but a historical perspective reminds us to consider the consumption or demand side as well. Just as important as the striking of oil in Beaumont, Texas, in 1901, was the development of new assumptions about how much energy people needed to sustain their lives and how much work they could be expected to do. Clearly, Americans are still grappling with the question of whether their society’s heavy investment in coal- and petroleum-based energy systems has been worthwhile.
Nuclear power in the United States has had an uneven history and faces an uncertain future. Promising in the 1950s electricity “too cheap to meter,” nuclear power has failed to come close to that goal, although it has carved out approximately a 20 percent share of American electrical output. Two decades after World War II, General Electric and Westinghouse offered electric utilities completed “turnkey” plants at a fixed cost, hoping these “loss leaders” would create a demand for further projects. During the 1970s the industry boomed, but it also brought forth a large-scale protest movement. Since then, partly because of that movement and because of the drama of the 1979 Three Mile Island accident, nuclear power has plateaued, with only one reactor completed since 1995. Several factors account for the failed promise of nuclear energy. Civilian power has never fully shaken its military ancestry or its connotations of weaponry and warfare. American reactor designs borrowed from nuclear submarines. Concerns about weapons proliferation stymied industry hopes for breeder reactors that would produce plutonium as a byproduct. Federal regulatory agencies dealing with civilian nuclear energy also have military roles. Those connections have provided some advantages to the industry, but they have also generated fears. Not surprisingly, the “anti-nukes” movement of the 1970s and 1980s was closely bound to movements for peace and disarmament. The industry’s disappointments must also be understood in a wider energy context. Nuclear grew rapidly in the late 1960s and 1970s as domestic petroleum output shrank and environmental objections to coal came to the fore. At the same time, however, slowing economic growth and an emphasis on energy efficiency reduced demand for new power output. In the 21st century, new reactor designs and the perils of fossil-fuel-caused global warming have once again raised hopes for nuclear, but natural gas and renewables now compete favorably against new nuclear projects. Economic factors have been the main reason that nuclear has stalled in the last forty years. Highly capital intensive, nuclear projects have all too often taken too long to build and cost far more than initially forecast. The lack of standard plant designs, the need for expensive safety and security measures, and the inherent complexity of nuclear technology have all contributed to nuclear power’s inability to make its case on cost persuasively. Nevertheless, nuclear power may survive and even thrive if the nation commits to curtailing fossil fuel use or if, as the Trump administration proposes, it opts for subsidies to keep reactors operating.
From the founding of the American republic through the 19th century, the nation’s environmental policy mostly centered on promoting American settlers’ conquest of the frontier. Early federal interventions, whether railroad and canal subsidies or land grant acts, led to rapid transformations of the natural environment that inspired a conservation movement by the end of the 19th century. Led by activists and policymakers, this movement sought to protect America’s resources now jeopardized by expansive industrial infrastructure. During the Gilded Age, the federal government established the world’s first national parks, and in the Progressive Era, politicians such as President Theodore Roosevelt called for the federal government to play a central role in ensuring the efficient utilization of the nation’s ecological bounty. By the early 1900s, conservationists established new government agencies, such as the U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Reclamation, to regulate the consumption of trees, water, and other valuable natural assets. Wise-use was the watchword of the day, with environmental managers in DC’s bureaucracy focused mainly on protecting the economic value latent in America’s ecosystems. However, other groups, such as the Wilderness Society, proved successful at redirecting policy prescriptions toward preserving beautiful and wild spaces, not just conserving resources central to capitalist enterprise. In the 1960s and 1970s, suburban and urban environmental activists attracted federal regulators’ attention to contaminated soil and water under their feet. The era of ecology had arrived, and the federal government now had broad powers through the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to manage ecosystems that stretched across the continent. But from the 1980s to the 2010s, the federal government’s authority to regulate the environment waxed and waned as economic crises, often exacerbated by oil shortages, brought environmental agencies under fire. The Rooseveltian logic of the Progressive Era, which said that America’s economic growth depended on federal oversight of the environment, came under assault from neoliberal disciples of Ronald Reagan, who argued that environmental regulations were in fact the root cause of economic stagnation in America, not a powerful prescription against it. What the country needed, according to the reformers of the New Right, was unregulated expansion into new frontiers. By the 2010s, the contours of these new frontiers were clear: deep-water oil drilling, Bakken shale exploration, and tar-sand excavation in Alberta, Canada. In many ways, the frontier conquest doctrine of colonial Americans found new life in deregulatory U.S. environmental policy pitched by conservatives in the wake of the Reagan Revolution. Never wholly dominant, this ethos carried on into the era of Donald Trump’s presidency.