Reagan’s Forgotten Environmental Legacy

February 6th, 2011 at 1:30 am | 12 Comments |

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Republicans are celebrating the 100th anniversary of Ronald Reagan’s birth this February 6 with great enthusiasm.

They should. For the GOP, Reagan is a unifying figure who showed Americans what was possible under Republican leadership that skillfully blended principle, pragmatism, and verve to serve the nation.

They should do more than celebrate, however. They should reflect.

Reagan’s greatest leadership gift was his magnetic optimism. He earned the respect of Americans, whatever their political leanings, with his unalterable belief that America was on top of its game and getting better all the time.

Many of today’s GOP leaders, to a large extent, lack that gift. Where Reagan brought us cheer and the uplifting politics of inspiration, too many of his political successors exude gloom and the burdensome politics of blame and resentment.

President Reagan also was a thoughtful, traditionalist conservative who was always mindful of our stewardship obligation to future generations. Where Reagan sought to prudently solve problems through lean and efficient governance, many of today’s GOP leaders are content to dismiss problems in pursuit of political expedience.

There’s no better example than to compare Reagan’s confident, prudent handling of a big atmospheric pollution problem during his time with the fearmongering obtuseness about a big atmospheric pollution problem of today that has been exhibited by those who would claim his mantle.

The parallels between then and now bear examination.

Then and now, climate scientists’ conclusions that human-caused emissions were tampering with the workings of the atmosphere were the stuff of political disputes and ideological posturing.

Then and now, talk of phasing out the troublesome emissions prompted turgid predictions, many from Reagan’s fellow Republicans, that the result would be economic catastrophe.

Then and now, the political class was divided and the matter was in the president’s hands.

Then, however, the president acted with dispatch. President Reagan took the scientists seriously and ordered his diplomats to negotiate a treaty to begin phasing out refrigeration chemicals that were depleting the upper atmosphere’s protective ozone layer, the thin layer of oxygen molecules that dampen the incoming flow of dangerous ultraviolet radiation from the sun.

That treaty was the Montreal Protocol, which Reagan called a “monumental achievement.” It was the basis for subsequent strengthening agreements and a Clean Air Act amendment that headed off a disaster and protected billions of people.

In a what-if study published in 2009, NASA scientists concluded that without the Montreal Protocol, we’d be headed for a world of soaring skin cancer rates and grievous environmental damage. “We simulated a world avoided and it’s a world we should be glad we avoided,” one of the scientists commented.

Meanwhile, here in the real world as modified by the Montreal Protocol, U.S. manufacturers developed safer substitutes for the offending chemicals, marketed them successfully, and continued to operate profitably.

It’s a safe bet that Reagan had no doubt that they would succeed. He believed in America’s power to innovate and thrive, not because it made for snappy speeches, or because it tested well in focus groups, or because Beltway consultants advised him to, but because he simply believed and said so with a narrative power and with a sunny disposition that inspired his fellow Americans to share his belief.

We can’t know with certainty what Reagan would do if he were president today and faced with climate change. All we can do is look at his record and ask today’s Republican leaders to demonstrate their admiration for our 40th president by following his good example.

Happy 100th Birthday, Ronald Wilson Reagan.


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12 Comments so far ↓

  • Reagan’s Forgotten Environmental Legacy | Talk Radio Sucks

    [...] Good article by Jim Dipeso that outlines yet another reason why Reagan would today be drummed out of today’s nut-filled GOP as a “RINO”. This entry was posted in Blogs, Reagan. Bookmark the permalink. ← Credit to Kristol Reagan Would Have Been Drummed Out of the “Tea Party” → [...]

  • balconesfault

    The ironic thing is that Reagan actually did his best to roll back as much of the environmental legislation that had been passed under Nixon and Ford as possible, and to gut EPA’s rulemaking.

    Yet compared to today’s GOP, Reagan comes off looking like John Muir.

  • TerryF98

    Reagan the enviromentalist, not so much. Frum Forum, tear down this myth

    This was written soon after his death. And paints a far truer picture than the fawning over a man who could not care a shit about the enviroment.

    “Before delving further into Reagan’s track record, it’s worth recalling his infamous public statement that “trees cause more pollution than automobiles do,” and that if “you’ve seen one tree you’ve seen them all.” This is not, in other words, a president who demonstrated much ecological prowess.

    Reagan’s ignorance in this area is personified by James Watt and Anne Gorsuch, the leaders he selected to head the Department of Interior and the U.S. EPA, respectively. “Never has America seen two more intensely controversial and blatantly anti-environmental political appointees than Watt and Gorsuch,” said Greg Wetstone, director of advocacy at the Natural Resources Defense Council, who served on the Hill during the Reagan era as chief environment council at the House Energy and Commerce Committee.

    The list of rollbacks attempted by these administrators is as sweeping as those of the current administration. Gorsuch tried to gut the Clean Air Act with proposals to weaken pollution standards “on everything from automobiles to furniture manufacturers — efforts which took Congress two years to defeat,” according to Clapp. Moves to weaken the Clean Water Act were equally aggressive, crescendoing in 1987 when Reagan vetoed a strong reauthorization of the act only to have his veto overwhelmingly overridden by Congress. Assaults on Superfund were so hideous that Rita Lavelle, director of the program, was thrown in jail for lying to Congress under oath about corruption in her agency division.

    The gutting of funds for environmental protection was another part of Reagan’s legacy. “EPA budget cuts during Reagan’s first term were worse than they are today,” said Frank O’Donnell, director of Clean Air Trust, who reported on environmental policy for The Washington Monthly during the Reagan era. “The administration tried to cut EPA funding by more than 25 percent in its first budget proposal,” he said. And massive cuts to Carter-era renewable-energy programs “set solar back a decade,” said Clapp.

    Topping it all off were efforts to slash the EPA enforcement program: “The enforcement slowdown was staggering,” said a staffer at the House Energy and Commerce Committee who helped investigate the Reagan administration’s enforcement of environmental laws during the early ’80s. “In the first year of the Reagan administration, there was a 79 percent decline in the number of enforcement cases filed from regional offices to EPA headquarters, and a 69 percent decline in the number of cases filed from the EPA to the Department of Justice.”

    Sound familiar? “There are plenty of similarities between the anti-government, anti-environment ideology of the Reagan administration and that of the current Bush administration,” said Sylvia Lowrance, a former EPA employee who worked as an attorney at the agency under Reagan. “But one critical difference made it far more difficult for the Reagan administration to get away with their agenda: a Democratic majority in Congress. There were strong checks and balances that we don’t see now.”

    During Reagan’s first term, there was a Democratic House of Representatives and the Senate was controlled by moderate Republicans — many of them relatively pro-environment, including Robert Stafford (Vt.), Bob Packwood (Ore.), and John Chafee (R.I.). Having control of the House enabled Democrats to hold numerous hearings and investigations into the administration’s controversial initiatives, something they can’t do now that they’re in the minority in both houses of Congress.

    But there was another, possibly even more powerful, difference between the anti-environmentalism of the Reagan era and the hostility we see today: Brutal honesty.

    “James Watt had all the political skills and public relations sense of a boa constrictor,” said Jim DiPeso, policy director at REP. “When Watt wanted to open up wilderness areas to mining and drilling regardless of the environmental consequences, he said just that. But at least he had the virtue of being a straight shooter.”

    Lowrance recalls sitting across the table from Gorsuch in a heated debate over environmental rollbacks. “We had it out,” she told Muckraker. “Contrast that to today when the career people are completely shut out of the conversation. It was a much more honest debate then.”

    Watt’s impolitic bluntness ultimately got the best of him. He made the most odious comment of his career in defense of his widely criticized decision to authorize the sale of more than 1 billion tons of coal from federal lands in Wyoming. He argued that he was immune to criticism because members of his coal-advisory panel included “a black … a woman, two Jews, and a cripple.” This comment got him fired in 1983, the same year that Gorsuch was forced to resign because documents exposed by Congress revealed major misconduct within her agency.

    It’s a sad state of affairs when this kind of contemptible candor is remembered fondly: “If only we could see the wolves beneath the sheeps’ clothing today,” said Daniel Weiss, a senior vice president at the environmental consulting firm M & R Strategic Services, who worked as an environmental lobbyist during the Reagan era. “Unfortunately, now our leaders are much more savvy — and far more insidious. They undo laws in the dead of night. Gale Norton is nothing more than James Watt with a smile.” “As bad as the Reagan administration was,” adds Wetstone, “it looks positively quaint in comparison to what’s happening today.”"

    • Traveler

      Good one Terry. Keep em honest! Not only is black now white in refuglican minds, they are trying to rewrite the past the way they wished it were. Even though he would be a RINO now. Trying to have both ways I guess.

  • jg bennet

    Ronald Reagan (1911 – 2004)
    Ronald Reagan emerged in the 1960s as one of America’s preeminent conservatives. Although not generally credited with a strong environmental record, Reagan signed 43 wilderness bills into law designating a net total of 10.6 million acres, and was instrumental in U.S. ratification of the Montreal Protocol — which has dramatically reduced emissions of gases that deplete the upper atmosphere’s protective ozone layer.

    ___________________

    “If we’ve learned any lessons during the past few decades, perhaps the most important is that preservation of our environment is not a partisan challenge; it’s common sense. Our physical health, our social happiness, and our economic well-being will be sustained only by all of us working in partnership as thoughtful, effective stewards of our natural resources.”
    Remarks on signing annual report of Council on Environmental Quality, July 11, 1984

    “A strong nation is one that is loved by its people and, as Edmund Burke put it, for a country to be loved it ought to be lovely.”
    Message to Congress transmitting Council on Environmental Quality’s annual report, February 19, 1986

    “The preservation of parks, wilderness, and wildlife has also aided liberty by keeping alive the 19th century sense of adventure and awe with which our forefathers greeted the American West. Many laws protecting environmental quality have promoted liberty by securing property against the destrutctive trespass of pollution. In our own time, the nearly universal appreciation of these preserved landscapes, restored waters, and cleaner air through outdoor recreation is a modern expression of our freedom and leisure to enjoy the wonderful life that generations past have built for us.”
    Message to Congress transmitting Council on Environmental Quality’s annual report, October 3, 1988

    “Generations hence, parents will take their children to these woods to show them how the land must have looked to the first Pilgrims and pioneers. And as Americans wander through these forests, climb these mountains, they will sense the love and majesty of the Creator of all of that.”
    Remarks upon signing legislation designating wilderness in North Carolina, New Hampshire, Vermont and Wisconsin, June 19, 1984

    “The Montreal Protocol is a model of cooperation. It is a product of the recognition and international consensus that ozone depletion is a global problem, both in terms of its causes and its effects. The protocol is the result of an extraordinary process of scientific study, negotiations among representatives of the business and environmental communities, and international diplomacy. It is a monumental achievement.”
    Statement on signing the instrument of ratification of the Montreal Protocol on Ozone-Depleting Substances, April 5, 1988

    “I just have to believe that with love for our natural heritage and a firm resolve to preserve it with wisdom and care, we can and will give the American land to our children, not impaired, but enhanced. And in doing this, we’ll honor the great and loving God who gave us this land in the first place.”
    Remarks to National Campers and Hikers Association in Bowling Green, KY, July 12, 1984

    “I believe in a sound, strong environmental policy that protects the health of our people and a wise stewardship of our nation’s natural resources.”
    Radio address to nation on environmental and natural resources management, June 11, 1983

    “I’m proud of having been one of the first to recognize that states and the federal government have a duty to protect our natural resources from the damaging effects of pollution that can accompany industrial development.”
    Radio address to nation on environmental issues, July 14, 1984

    “What is a conservative after all but one who conserves, one who is committed to protecting and holding close the things by which we live…And we want to protect and conserve the land on which we live — our countryside, our rivers and mountains, our plains and meadows and forests. This is our patrimony. This is what we leave to our children. And our great moral responsibility is to leave it to them either as we found it or better than we found it.”
    Remarks at dedication of National Geographic Society new headquarters building, June 19, 1984

    http://www.rep.org/index.html

  • midcon

    Reagan had his environmental pluses and minuses. The problem only arises during the canonization process, otherwise wise men can examine the record with some objectivity.

    I am loathe to declare sainthood for Ronald Reagan, not because he was particularly evil or malicious, but simply because he was a man and had human frailties as all men do. We permit some degree of veneration for our founding fathers because after all, they were the founders but even some of them were slave owners. Still, when viewed from the distance of time those faults tend to be blurred.

    Reagan was the president. He did some good things. He is neither George Washington nor Benedict Arnold. While some civilized and classy celebration of his life may be in order, one should be careful the celebration does not become unduly excessive resulting in embarassment from all the gushing, fainting, and whatnot. Let’s be moderate in our praise and our damning.

    • balconesfault

      ” We permit some degree of veneration for our founding fathers because after all, they were the founders”

      And also because they took great risks – many of them wealthy men, who would have lost all their assets, and in many cases their lives, had the Revolution not succeeded.

      Washington, Jefferson, Adams et al were not tools of any corporation or operatives who managed their choices for them in order to gain power and profit.

      Ronald Wilson Reagan, otoh, is always fixed in my mind as a man who became President because some very powerful interests in America wanted him to become President. That’s why Gorsuch and Watt immediately took control of America’s Environmental Policy when Reagan became President – because those powerful interests wanted to launch a full-on assult against the environmental movement that grew during the 60′s and 70′s, and Reagan was their man to facilitate that assult.

      In that way, perhaps, he was not only the equal of our Founding Fathers … but the antithesis of them. Deep down inside, Reagan had the reactionary soul of a Tory.

      • Arms Merchant

        Deep down inside, Reagan had the reactionary soul of a Tory.

        Really? Then why did he start out as an FDR Democrat? And why was he a union member? And then a union president?

        As for corporate interests putting him into office, I think the voters did that. Twice. After comparing him to Carter and Mondale.

  • balconesfault

    Really? Then why did he start out as an FDR Democrat? And why was he a union member? And then a union president?

    Because he grew up in a family of FDR Democrats. And then was a member of a unionized profession.

    Tories, by and large, pledge loyalty. When Reagan was younger, he pledged loyalty to the Democrats because he associated with Democrats. When he became an actor, he pledged loyalty to the union because he associated with unionized actors.

    When he became a wealthy Californian, he pledged loyalty to the Republican Party supported by the wealthy corporatists he surrounded himself with.

    As for corporate interests putting him into office, I think the voters did that. Twice.

    Had the corporate interests not promoted Reagan, he’d have never gotten near the GOP nomination.

  • Carney

    Let’s not over-learn this lesson. Just because politicians might want something to happen doesn’t mean the laws of physics, chemistry, and economics will accommodate their wishes.

  • djenkins

    TerryF98 must get his history lessons from the same sources that Glenn Beck does. Reagan, both as governor and as president did quite a bit to protect the environment. It is true that he made some bad appointments and got poor advice from those folks, but while he deserves criticism for appointing Watt, Hodel and Gorsuch, he deserves credit for later appointing Bill Ruckleshaus and Lee Terry.

    Any honest and unbiased look at Reagan will see someone who truly strived for balance in his environmental policies. In fact, it was his administration that originally concieved the idea of emissons trading (aka cap-and-trade) to address acid rain. The first Bush finished that work by pushing through a cap-and-trade system in the Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990.

    AEI’s Steven Hayward wrote a nice article about Reagan and the environment for InFocus Quarterly. The link is below:

    http://www.jewishpolicycenter.org/1409/ronald-reagan-environment

  • ChallengingFrum

    who wrote this article???? The sophomoric “parallelism” is something you expect to read in a high school junior civics class. While I don’t know what Reagan would do…I do have a pretty good idea what he WOULDN’T do. He wouldn’t impose a carbon trading regime/tax unilaterally on the US economy while China and India were exempt based on the work of scientists who have admitted that they are “playing” with the data while having no proof that carbon is a “pollutant”, that it is making the world warmer, that human kind is the primary contributor, and that constricting this “pollutant” will have any meaningful effect on global temperatures.

    Please keep your religion to yourself. Temperatures change. The perfect temperature wasn’t the day Al Gore was born.