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.