What Would Reagan Do
About Climate Change?
The climate change skeptics who populate our radio and television airwaves, such as Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck, like to claim that their views match those of the late President Ronald Reagan. In doing so, they leave their audiences with the impression that Reagan would share their skepticism about climate change and oppose action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions -- an impression that liberals are equally happy to perpetuate.
Of course, their saying so does not make it true.
In reality, the howlers on talk radio and Fox News are less interested in following Reagan’s lead than they are in remaking him in their own image. Reagan is not their compass, but rather a cloak they wrap themselves in for credibility.
That is why you will never hear Limbaugh or Beck mention—much less praise—any of Reagan’s environmental accomplishments. His conservation record and his stewardship ethic do not project an image of Reagan that fits with their ideological agenda. So they ignore that aspect of Reagan’s conservatism—as do liberals, albeit for different reasons.
If Reagan were alive and serving as president today, no one could know exactly what he would do about a problem that was only beginning to be recognized during his administration, but we can glean clues based on a careful examination of his record.
Fortunately, we have an example from his presidency that is quite revealing in the context of the current climate change debate. Extremists on both the left and on the right might be surprised.
The Real “Ozone Man”
In 1984, researchers confirmed a hypothesis that chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) used in aerosol sprays and refrigeration equipment were depleting the earth’s protective ozone layer.
They concluded that unless ozone-depleting chemicals were phased out, life on earth would be exposed to ever-increasing levels of dangerous ultraviolet radiation emitted by the sun.
These findings met with much the same kind of skepticism and resistance that have greeted scientific conclusions about climate change—and from many of the same sources. Limbaugh, for example, has been a longstanding cynic regarding both ozone depletion and climate change. He dismisses each problem as a “hoax” and has made ridiculing them a staple of his act.
Reagan, when faced with mounting scientific concern about ozone depletion, listened to all sides, carefully weighed the facts, and ultimately sided with the climate scientists who were urging him to take prudent action to safeguard our atmosphere.
Despite strong opposition from Interior Secretary Don Hodel and other skeptics within his administration, President Reagan chose to push through a strong international treaty to begin phasing out ozone-depleting chemicals.
That 1987 treaty, the Montreal Protocol, is widely regarded as the most successful environmental treaty of all time.
A few months before the final negotiating session the United States’ chief negotiator for the treaty, Richard Benedick, was concerned that Hodel and others would convince Reagan to back off the U.S. position, which demanded significant near-term CFC reductions.
In a 2007 article entitled, Science, Diplomacy, and the Montreal Protocol, Benedick describes how he learned of the president’s decision:
In June 1987, with the final negotiating session at Montreal less than three months away, I was at the Reichstag in Berlin to deliver an address on the fortieth anniversary of the Marshall Plan when a breathless U.S. Embassy attaché brought me an “Eyes Only” personal cable from the White House. President Reagan thus became the world’s first head of state to personally approve a national negotiating policy on ozone protection. Ignoring the advice of some of his closest political friends, the President completely endorsed, point-by-point, the strong position of the State Department and EPA.
President Reagan decided to protect our atmosphere from a problem that, at the time, was not fully understood by scientists. He discounted the arguments of those who claimed that the problem was not real or that the economic cost would be too great.
Today, because of his bold leadership, our ozone layer is healing.
In the 2000 presidential race, former Vice President Al Gore was mocked by George W. Bush supporters with the label “Ozone Man.” Little did they know that the real “Ozone Man” is not Gore. It is Ronald Reagan.
Cap and Tirade
Turn on talk radio and you are likely to hear rant after rant about the evils of cap-and-trade legislation. Cap and trade is the common name for a market-based pollution control policy that sets caps on emissions and allows companies to buy and sell emission allowances.
By establishing a limited market for these tradable allowances, a cap-and-trade program puts a price on harmful emissions and provides the companies a financial incentive to reduce emissions. Companies that find effective ways of cutting their emissions can sell their unused allowances to companies that are still exceeding the cap level.
Under the traditional “command-and-control” approach to pollution reduction, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) would not only set pollution limits, it would also prescribe the technology companies were required to implement to achieve those reductions.
It would probably come as quite a shock to Limbaugh and Beck, not to mention the tea party crowd and some GOP leaders, that the cap-and-trade method has a conservative lineage that can be traced back to the Reagan White House.
During Reagan’s presidency, acid rain was a huge environmental problem. In addition to committing funds for research and emissions control projects, Reagan asked his Presidential Task Force on Regulatory Relief—chaired by then Vice President George H.W. Bush— to examine incentives for the deployment of emissions control technologies and identify new opportunities to address the problem.
C. Boyden Gray, counsel for both Vice President Bush and the task force, became attracted to the idea of emissions trading as a market-friendly alternative to the “command-and-control” approach typically favored by bureaucrats.
President Reagan seemed to allude to this in his 1987 State of the Union address, saying:
We are also developing proposals that make use of market incentives to control air pollution caused by sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide emissions and the causes of acid rain.
Reagan left the White House before the idea could be implemented, but Gray continued to work on the idea, and in 1990, the first Bush Administration successfully pushed through legislation establishing a cap-and-trade program to reduce acid rain. Cap and trade was a great success, reducing sulfur dioxide emissions faster and at a much lower cost than had been anticipated.
Move Over Al
When it comes to addressing climate change, Al Gore has become the 500-pound Donkey in the room. He is a climate hero to lefty environmentalists and the perfect butt of ridicule for climate skeptics. He even won a Nobel Peace prize for his work on climate change.
While Gore’s education and fund-raising efforts around the issue are laudable, his efforts have not yet resulted directly in significant greenhouse gas reductions.
With climate change, just as with ozone depletion, the real record of accomplishment belongs to Reagan.
The impact of greenhouse gas emissions on our climate were just starting to be understood as Reagan’s presidency was winding down. Research into what was then called the “greenhouse effect” was in early stages, and scientists had not accumulated the body of evidence they have today that links greenhouse gas emissions to climate change.
Still, as it turns out, it is Reagan’s successful negotiation of the Montreal Protocol treaty that stands as the biggest single accomplishment to date in reducing the greenhouse emissions responsible for global warming.
The CFCs controlled by the treaty are very potent greenhouse gases and, according to a study conducted by the National Academy of Sciences, the Montreal Protocol has prevented the equivalent of 135 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide since 1990. That is 10 times more greenhouse gas reductions than has been achieved by the 1997 Kyoto Protocol that Gore helped negotiate.
Had President Reagan not heeded the advice of climate scientists and acted on the best available research at the time about ozone depletion—which was far less solid than the current state of knowledge about climate change—the climate change problem we face today would be even more daunting.
The Good Steward
There is a common perception that the Reagan Administration marked a shift away from environmental protection. While it is true that some officials within the Reagan Administration were vocal critics of environmental regulation, President Reagan himself was very much influenced by the conservation ethic of traditional conservatism and was more stewardship-minded than those on either the right or the left give him credit for.
Reagan talked a lot about having balanced policies that do not go too far towards one extreme or another. Today, when someone speaks of balance related to policy issues, it typically means that they want the policy to tilt more to their liking. When Reagan talked about balance, he meant it sincerely.
While he once complained that environmental groups were trying to turn the White House into a bird’s nest, he also said, “There are also people in the country that believe that they won't be satisfied unless they can pave over the entire countryside.”
In a 1982 interview with the Los Angeles Times, Reagan said, “I fancy myself an environmentalist” and there is a lot in his record as president and as governor of California to support that statement.
In a 1984 radio address to the nation, Reagan took credit for the strong action he took in California to combat smog, saying:
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.
Despite all of the efforts, from the right and the left, to revise history by ignoring or misrepresenting Reagan’s environmental accomplishments, an honest look at his record reveals a good steward who fought to safeguard our natural heritage.
On issues ranging from ill-advised dams and highways, to air pollution and water quality, Reagan rose to the occasion.
He sided with climate scientists over skeptics and firmly dealt with the threat of ozone depletion.
His work to tackle the acid rain problem spawned a more market-friendly approach to pollution control called cap and trade.
So, how can anyone honestly believe that Ronald Reagan would not rise to the occasion and effectively tackle climate change as well?
Limbaugh, Beck, and copycat talk show hosts can rant all day and pretend they are channeling Reagan, but they are not. They cannot, because they utterly lack the conservative stewardship ethic that made Reagan the great leader he was.
If you really want to know what Reagan would do about climate change, the best advice is to take an honest look at his record.