Reagan helped save the ozone layer but ruined America’s leadership in clean energy
Sunday was the 100th anniversary of President Reagan’s birth.
As ThinkProgress points out, the right-wing hagiography of the Gipper leaves out the fact that he was “a serial tax raiser” and “nearly tripled the federal budget deficit” and “gave amnesty to 3 million undocumented immigrants.”
His overall environmental legacy as president is very poor, as Grist laid out in great detail here. The only real exception was his work in helping to save the ozone layer. But his clean energy legacy is an unmitigated disaster that we are still suffering the consequences from today. Let’s run through the history.
Grist explained Reagan’s overall eco-legacy in 2004:
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.”
As for energy, Reagan almost single-handedly killed America’s global leadership in renewable energy.
President Reagan is the “culprit in chief” when it comes to the “current energy debacle,” explained Richard Cohen in his 2008 piece “Wish Upon a Pump.” I could not agree more.
Reagan is a key reason we have only about one-sixth of the soaring global market for wind power — an industry we once dominated: President Reagan cut the renewable energy R&D budget 85 percent after he took office and eliminated the wind investment tax credit in 1986. This was pretty much the death of most of the U.S. wind industry. Same for solar power.
Indeed, Reagan gutted Carter’s entire multi-billion dollar clean energy and energy efficiency effort. He opposed and then rolled back fuel economy standards. Reagan turned all such commonsense strategies into “liberal” policies that must be opposed by any true conservative, a position embraced all too consistently by conservative leaders from Gingrich to Bush/Cheney to John McCain to the entire Tea Party-driven GOP.
The only real difference between Reagan and Bush/McCain is that the latter have embraced the Frank Luntz strategy for conservatives, in which they claim rhetorically that they support clean energy technologies while actually promoting anti-technology policies. That is why presidential candidate John McCain went to a wind company to talk about climate in 2008.
The media was oblivious to what the Teflon president did in the 1980s, and of the anti-clean-energy conservatives in recent years. Well, not all of the media. Cohen gets it right in his terrific op-ed, most of which I reprint below:
Those of you with keen memories may recall that the energy crisis is not new. In 1977, Jimmy Carter called it the “moral equivalent of war.” In the sort of speech a politician rarely delivers, he told a not-particularly-grateful nation that his energy program was going to hurt, but “a policy which does not ask for changes or sacrifices would not be an effective policy.” The core of his initiative was conservation. Carter had earlier asked us to lower our thermostats and wear sweaters. He wore one himself.
Reagan, who succeeded Carter in the White House, wore only a smile. For him, there was no energy crisis. Whereas Carter had insisted that only the government could manage the energy crisis, Reagan, in his first inaugural, demanded that government get out of the way. Speaking of general economic conditions at the time, he said, “Government is not the solution to our problem.” He went on to call for America to return to greatness, to “reawaken this industrial giant,” and all sorts of swell things would happen. It was wonderful stuff.
To contrast the two speeches is like comparing the screeching of a cat to the miracles of Mozart. Yet today, Carter’s speech reads as prescient. Most of his dire predictions — “It is a problem we will not solve in the next few years, and it is likely to get progressively worse through the rest of this century” — have generally come true, although not quite as soon or as calamitously as he had warned. The pity of it all is that in American politics, being right is beside the point.
It is not my intention to pummel the late Ronald Reagan for what he did or did not do back in the 1980s. It is my intention, though, to suggest that Reaganism — to which Republicans now swear allegiance — has outlived its very short usefulness and ought to be junked. This is not to say that government is the answer to all our ills. It is only to note that if you think the answer is private enterprise, then drive to the nearest gas station and admire the prices brought to you by private companies.
The worst part of Reaganism was its political success. It left behind a coterie of panting acolytes who learned from Reagan himself that optimism, cheerfulness, an embrace of magical thinking and the avoidance of the painful truth was the formula for victory at the polls. For a time, it worked — the cost of gas went down — and Carter, that scold in the silly sweater, was banished. As they say in New Orleans, “Laissez les bons temps rouler!” (Let the good times roll!) Upbeat? You bet. But not a business plan.
Ironically, one reason for Reagan’s political success is that oil prices collapsed in the mid-1980s, because the high energy prices coupled with the aggressive government-led efficiency and conservation policies he gutted — including doubling the fuel economy of U.S. vehicles — led to more supply and less demand.
In “The Age of Reagan,” Princeton historian Sean Wilentz posits that Reagan was the transformative president of our times. I don’t know about that. But I do know that in the recent primary debates, Republican after Republican invoked Reagan the way Democrats once did Roosevelt, and they vowed, knock on wood, to be a similar kind of president. If they meant what they said, that would mean no energy plan worth its name and, worse, chirpy assurances to the American people that all would be well.
This is the doleful legacy of Reaganism. We have become a nation that believes that you can get something for nothing. We thought that the energy crisis would be solved … somehow, and that no one would have to suffer. We still believe in the magical qualities of America, that something about us makes us better. Yet we have a chaotic and mediocre education system that desperately needs more money and higher standards, but we think — don’t we? — that somehow we will maintain our lifestyle anyway. Hey, is this America or what?
Somewhere in his peripatetic travels, the much-maligned Jimmy Carter — an artless politician, to be sure — must scratch his head at the reverence still accorded Reagan. The way things are going, the Gipper’s visage will be added to Mount Rushmore. Not that anyone will notice. It’ll be too expensive to drive there.
Reagan’s anti-clean-energy, anti-conservation legacy lives on in mainstream conservatism today:
- Republican Study Committee proposes deep cuts in federal clean energy spending
- Ed Whitfield (R-Ky.) and House GOP want more polluted air and less clean energy
- The Chamber of Commerce is so extreme they oppose research and development into renewable energy!
That’s a key reason why dreams of “post-partisan power” remain just that — a dream.
Ironically, opposition to clean energy investment runs longer and deeper in the conservative movement than opposition to reducing global pollution. After all, President Reagan helped save the ozone layer.
As Republicans for Environmental Protection (REP) points out:
“We especially want people to remember Reagan’s leadership in negotiating the Montreal Protocol treaty, which began the phase-out of ozone depleting chemicals and has done more to safeguard the earth’s atmosphere than any other law or treaty ever passed,” Jim DiPeso, REP’s vice president for policy and communication, said.
Reagan certainly deserves credit for that important achievement. He did assert leadership and overrule his advisers, as Richard Benedick, Reagan’s chief ozone negotiator, explained in a 2005 Senate hearing:
Nevertheless, after contentious international negotiations, compounded by unexpected late controversy from within the U.S. administration, a strong control treaty was signed in Montreal in September 1987. The treaty signing attracted worldwide media attention, and it was hailed in the United States Senate as “the most significant international environmental agreement in history.” President Reagan became the first head of state to endorse the Montreal Protocol, pronouncing it “a monumental achievement of science and diplomacy,” and the treaty was unanimously ratified by the Senate.
Had Reagan followed the advice of his hard-core anti-environmental advisers, who knows what might’ve happened to the ozone layer?
But taking on CFCs didn’t require taking on the fossil fuel industry or promoting clean energy — two things Reagan could not abide.
Assuming that modern-day conservatives are successful for the foreseeable future in blocking action to 1) reduce greenhouse gas emissions and 2) rapidly accelerate clean energy into the marketplace, they will help destroy Reagan’s legacy. After all, in a world suffering from unrestricted greenhouse gas emissions, from “Hell and High Water,” historians — and indeed all Americans — will see just how tragically mistaken it was to crush U.S. clean energy leadership and abandon a true conservative ethic of conservation.
Note: For any conservatives reading this, don’t miss,”Listen to a Liberal Caller Crush Rush Limbaugh’s Ronald Reagan Delusions.”