Ronald Reagan, Friend of Environmental Science?

By Chris Mooney | November 23, 2010 11:53 am

Sherwood Boehlert is a hero of science policy, and I know he has the best of intentions. The longtime moderate Republican from upstate New York did an oped in the Post on Friday calling on his party to rethink its increasingly monolithic rejection of modern climate science.  Bless him for that:

There is a natural aversion to more government regulation. But that should be included in the debate about how to respond to climate change, not as an excuse to deny the problem’s existence. The current practice of disparaging the science and the scientists only clouds our understanding and delays a solution.

This is absolutely right. But unfortunately, Boehlert derails it all at the end, when he invokes the memory of Ronald Reagan in calling for a more science-friendly Republicanism:

What is happening to the party of Ronald Reagan? He embraced scientific understanding of the environment and pollution and was proud of his role in helping to phase out ozone-depleting chemicals. That was smart policy and smart politics. Most important, unlike many who profess to be his followers, Reagan didn’t deny the existence of global environmental problems but instead found ways to address them.

Boehlert should consult my book The Republican War on Science, where I show how Reagan and his administration were the starting point for the very anti-science tendencies that are now so prevalent in the GOP, and of such concern to Boehlert. Reagan and his administration crossed the line on countless scientific issues, including acid rain, Star Wars, evolution/creationism, and much more.

What Boehlert should have asked is, “What is happening to the party of Eisenhower?” Still, it is heartening to see Republicans like Boehlert standing up for science on issues like climate change–we need as many as we can get.

Comments (6)

  1. While there are those who would put Arnold Schwarzenegger in the role of science hero, or environmental hero, for his position on climate change, he has only this to his credit. Like Reagan, he borrows credit for action in one area and spends it on other policies that make no ecological sense. In Schwarzenegger’s case this involves both water policy for California and also the so called Marine Life Protection Areas, where he appointed an oil industry lobbyist and a group of real estate developers to “fast track” planning for protecting our oceans. The result… little public input and no public accountability.

    We need more like Boehlert who will stand up for sensible policies, but we also need to be careful about anointing new heroes.

    Look at the list of Ecology Ethicists who either left the Republican Party or were dispatched by the hard core right: Lincoln Chaffee, Wayne Gilchrest (both dispatched in primary elections) and Pete McCloskey who re-registered Democrat after losing a primary fight to Richard Pombo
    2006.

    I grew up in the Arizona of Barry Goldwater, a Conservative who understood that this designation had the same semantic root as Conservation. I don’t think that even he would recognize the Republican Party now. For myself, I re-registered from Republican to Green.

  2. JMW

    Somewhat off topic, but the conservative anti-science agenda (particularly with regards to climate science) is alive and well in Canada too.

    http://www.cbc.ca/technology/story/2010/11/23/climate-research-funding-cfcas.html

  3. How many current Republicans would recognize Eisenhower as one of their own? I think Boehlert recognizes that most of the rank and file in the party will respond to Reagan’s name much more than they will Eisenhower’s.

    Reagan has been assigned the role of empty iconic vessel – fill him in with whatever you consider to be ‘true’ Republicanism regardless of whether it fits with what Reagan did or believed in.

  4. Boehlert has it exactly right. There were many within the Reagan administration who wanted nothing to do with the Montreal Protocol, but Reagan came down on the side of his administration’s scientists and diplomats, and ordered the latter to negotiate a strong treaty. He called the treaty a “monumental achievement,” and rightfully so. The Montreal Protocol was the first in a series of agreements that have stopped depletion of the ozone layer. Incidentally, the Montreal Protocol has prevented the equivalent of 135 billion metric tons of CO2-equivalent greenhouse gases out of the atmosphere, according to a NAS study.

    What else did President Reagan do for the environment? Signed 43 bills designating more than 10 million acres of federal lands as wilderness. Signed legislation strengthening the Superfund law and the Safe Drinking Water Act. Signed legislation to establish energy efficiency standards for appliances that will save consumers a net present value of $125 billion by 2030. Signed legislation broadening the Clean Water Act to authorize regulation of stormwater and non-point source pollution. Signed bills creating Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument, Great Basin National Park, and El Malpais National Monument.

    What did Reagan do for the environment as governor of California? Signed legislation establishing the Air Resources Board, and appointed as its first chairman Dr. Arie Haagen-Smit, who had documented the link between automobile exhaust and tropospheric ozone pollution, much to the chagrin of the auto industry. Signed follow-up legislation strengthening the board’s authority to ban the sale of any vehicle in the state that did not meet California tailpipe emission standards. Blocked a proposed federal dam on the middle fork of the Feather River. Blocked another proposed federal dam, a 730-foot-tall monstrosity, on the Eel River. Blocked a federal proposal to build a trans-Sierra highway. Negotiated a bistate compact with Nevada to protect Lake Tahoe.

    You can find out more by reading Lou Cannon’s excellent biographies of Reagan.

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About Chris Mooney

Chris is a science and political journalist and commentator and the author of three books, including the New York Times bestselling The Republican War on Science--dubbed "a landmark in contemporary political reporting" by Salon.com and a "well-researched, closely argued and amply referenced indictment of the right wing's assault on science and scientists" by Scientific American--Storm World, and Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future, co-authored by Sheril Kirshenbaum. They also write "The Intersection" blog together for Discover blogs. For a longer bio and contact information, see here.

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