Columnist: Veteran GOP Appointee Asserts Asserts 'Science Has Left the Building'

January 30, 2012
by Neal Peirce

The words are harsh: Clean-air regulations are under "demagogic assaults." House Republicans are dangerously "advocating abandonment of toxic regulations" that have demonstrably protected Americans' health. They're "ignoring climate change." In fact, "for some of the most prominent leaders of the Republican Party, science has left the building."

The speaker, William K. Reilly, has gilt-edged Republican credentials. He was a senior staff member of President Richard Nixon's Council on Environmental Quality. For four years, he served as President George H.W. Bush's administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency. 

Indeed, Reilly credits the first President Bush's "monumental contribution to the environment" for his support of the Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990. And when critics assault EPA regulations as "job killers," Reilly argues EPA rules have had dramatic public health benefits even while the U.S. economy has grown by 200 percent since Nixon signed the original Clean Air Act in 1970.

What I've always found fascinating about Bill Reilly, whom I've known since the 1970s, is not just the political candor he brings to big issues. Nor just his array of top public service posts including heading the U.S. delegation to the United Nations Earth Summit in Rio in 1992, directing the Global Water Challenge, and co-chairing the recent National Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill and Offshore Drilling.

What I've found striking is his equal interest in creating better places - communities, neighborhoods, in which we live. It's a connection the mainstream environmental community ignored for many of its early years, focused overwhelmingly on issues such as saving the wilderness.

But not Reilly. He was an urbanist before it ever became fashionable - indeed starting in his college days, he explained in a recent lecture at Washington's National Building Museum on receiving the prestigious Vincent Scully Prize for "exemplary" leadership in urban design.

He had learned from distinguished conservationists, said Reilly, that it's possible to breathe life and beauty even into the dullest landscape or cityscape. And from Holly Whyte, author of "The Organization Man," that density is the secret, not the bane, of urban life - that "pedestrians choose the most heavily crowded and trafficked intersections to stop, chat, exchange reciprocal gestures."

James Rouse, famed developer of festival marketplaces, took Reilly for a tour of his first big hit, Boston's Faneuil Hall Marketplace. As they passed the low-revenue fruit, vegetable and flower market that had taken up the entire ground floor of the building, Rouse remarked that big developers were mocking him for ignoring "the bottom line." But Rouse explained what critics missed: "The market is the magnet, it's what draws the crowds."

As president of the Conservation Fund, then merged with the World Wildlife Fund, Reilly focused in the '70s both on protection of "exquisite, unspoiled, wild and beautiful places" around the world and creating friendlier, more inviting and inclusive neighborhoods in U.S. cities. 

He also chaired the board of Robert McNulty's Partners for Livable Communities, creating such programs as The Economics of Amenity to convince cities and corporations, even at a time of serious urban flight, that there were greenbacks - and civic gold - in investing in such "frills" as people-oriented parks and plazas, theaters and museums, historical preservation, waterfront revival and sports events. 

Check America's rejuvenated cities, 2012, and it's clear that this work was prophetic. And so is Reilly's warning of the devastation that today's steadily advancing climate change may visit on our communities if Congress and the country continue their "sleepwalk" and denial on the issue. He cites cataclysmic multibillion-dollar impacts that may result from rising sea levels, soaring summertime temperatures, insect infestations and the washing away of thousands of miles of crucial levees. 

"Climate change," says Reilly, "is to America what the German buildup in the 1930s was to the British - the threat that grows more menacing even as we determinedly pretend it is not there."

Though while Congress sleeps, Reilly says, industry and cities are starting some of the essential responses. He cites Chicago's comprehensive Climate Action Plan as an example.

Recalling the City Beautiful movement that flourished in the 1890s, Reilly argues we need a new movement - the City Sustainable - for communities that are green, smart and fair. 

The top priority: to "armor our cities" against climate change's worst impacts by such practical steps as reduced water use, greater energy efficiency, better insulation, green roofs, reflective pavements and more tree cover. Along with "a more congenial environment for pedestrians, bicyclists, for public transportation." 

This is all possible; it's already being tried in cities, Reilly insists. And, he adds, "It's very much place-based, in the best sense," and might help "save us from the ideological gridlock in Washington."

Will Washington - and especially its combative Republicans - listen? Not very soon, I'd guess. And that's the quandary, as the climate clock keeps ticking.

Neal Peirce's e-mail address is nrp@citistates.com.

© 2012, The Washington Post Writers Group

The opinions expressed in this column are not necessarily those of the National League of Cities or Nation's Cities Weekly.