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The Hopeful Environmentalist

Climate change and the presidential race: Lessons from the Reagan years

Yes, climate change came up during the debate but there was little substantive discussion of energy or environment. Rick Wilking/Reuters

Climate change did not come up in the first presidential debate – well, not in any real sense. Hillary Clinton jabbed at Donald Trump for claiming that “The concept of global warming was created by and for the Chinese in order to make U.S. manufacturing non-competitive.” He denied that he said it, but his tweet on November 6, 2012 says otherwise. Later Trump chided Clinton that climate change is not as important “as you think, as your president thinks.”

The fact is that this issue is not likely to come up in the debates – it barely registered in the primaries and did not come up in the 2012 presidential debates – though some in the media have called for more attention. If it were to come up, would it make any difference? After all, the two sides have made their positions clear, and they could not be more different.

Hillary Clinton’s position seems a continuation of her predecessor, Barack Obama, while Donald Trump’s position seems a repeat of the Reagan administration of the early 1980s. If history is to be repeated, Trump’s anti-regulation positions on environment and energy could actually backfire and strengthen the environmental agenda he professes to disdain.

Miles apart

Clinton calls climate change “an urgent threat and a defining challenge of our time” and has vowed to defend the EPA Clean Power Plan to regulate greenhouse gas emissions from power plants. She’s said she would deliver on the commitments made at the Paris COP21 climate conference to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by up to 30 percent in 2025 relative to 2005 levels and to put the country on a path to cut emissions more than 80 percent by 2050.

To do this, she has promised to make America into “the world’s clean energy superpower” by increasing the installation of renewable energy, improving buildings’ energy efficiency and reducing American oil consumption through cleaner fuels and more efficient cars, boilers, ships and trucks.

Trump calls climate change a “hoax” and not man-made, and has vowed to reverse the Clean Power Plan and defect on the commitments made at the Paris COP21 climate conference. Trump’s energy future is focused on an increase in U.S. fossil fuel production, specifically resurrecting the coal industry – “We’re going to save that coal industry, believe me.”

Against this backdrop, Donald Trump is also making his broader agenda clear. In an effort to increase economic growth and jobs, he wants to roll back the powers of the Environmental Protection Agency which he has called “a disgrace, every week they come out with new regulations.” At times, he has suggested that he would like to dismantle the agency altogether.

Putting his words into action, Trump announced this week that he was naming one of the best-known climate skeptics – Myron Ebell, director of the Center for Energy and Environment at the conservative Competitive Enterprise Institute – to lead his U.S. EPA transition team.

Gang of three

This is a similar script to that employed by President Ronald Reagan more than 35 years ago, and the result was actually the opposite of what he sought.

In his first term as president, Reagan set his sights on defederalization, or giving states more power, and in particular, rolling back environmental regulation. He appointed Ann Burford Gorsuch as EPA administrator, James Watt to head the Department of the Interior and Rita Lavelle was put in charge of Superfund, the program for cleaning up the country’s most polluted sites. They were later to be known as the “gang of three.”

No friend of environmentalists: President Reagan during a meeting with members of Congress in 1983. Executive Office of the President of the United States

In the words of Gorsuch, “There is no riper pasture for regulatory reform than EPA.” After her appointment, Gorsuch slowed agency activity and Lavelle brought Superfund activity to a stop. This was at first a welcome sign to those who sought an era of regulatory relief.

However, closed meetings soon created an air of favoritism and secret deals. And Gorsuch’s slashing of the EPA’s budget and staff created a critical backlash within the public and government.

In 1983, the gang of three was hastily removed from office, and in 1984 voters elected a Democratic Congress that stopped anti-environment initiatives. Lavelle was fired in February 1983, Gorsuch resigned in March and Watt resigned in October. In December, Lavelle was sentenced to serve six months in jail and pay a US$10,000 fine for perjury for lying to Congress in a case involving disposal of toxic wastes. To restore credibility to the beleaguered agency, Reagan reinstated William Ruckelshaus as EPA administrator.

Congress went on to renew and strengthen the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) in 1984, Superfund in 1986, the Safe Drinking Water Act in 1986 and the Clean Water Act in 1987. Environmental groups increased membership and budgets, and between 1982 and 1988 increased their legal activity by over 100 percent from that of the period before. In the words of former Sierra Club Conservation Director Carl Pope, President Reagan “reinvented the environmental movement by his contempt for it.”

Changes underfoot in GOP?

Is Trump starting down the same path trod by Reagan? There is reason to suggest his road could create an even more severe backlash.

His climate position flies in the face of the position of nearly 200 scientific agencies around the world, including the scientific agencies of every one of the G8 countries. It also diverges from the position of a growing number of Republican voters as well as a growing share of the corporate sector.

Public opinion polls by Bloomberg, the Pew Research Center, the Brookings Institution and even some Republican pollsters show that a small, though growing, majority of Republican voters are becoming believers.

The truth is that many Republicans politicians, congressional aides, lobbyists and staff believe in the science of climate change and the need to take action when safely behind closed doors. They are just waiting for the right political cover to come out in public with their views. Will the Republican voter base really take out their wrath if they do so? Or will they be turned off by such an oppositional position?

If recent history and even more recent public opinion data are any indication, the answer to this second question may be yes. Concern for the environment is a long-term interest of the American public, and concern is more latent than top of mind. While recent surveys show that it ranks very low on election issue topics – number 12 in one poll, behind the economy, terrorism, foreign policy and health care – it is also one driven by saliency and immediacy, and it will awaken when threatened. At this point we can only watch and wait to see if that proves to be the case.

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