Author Archives: jimdipeso

Was Reagan a Climate Leader?

There are probably some readers of this blog whose memory of the Reagan Administration only conjures up scary visions of former Secretary of the Interior James Watt. They might be surprised to learn (as would folks like Rush Limbaugh) that President Reagan had quite a few environmental accomplishments—both as governor of California and as president—not the least of which was his action as president to safeguard our atmosphere.

President Reagan (courtesy Ronald Reagan Library)

The most pressing climate issue of his day was ozone depletion. Climate scientists were warning that the chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) used in refrigeration and other industrial applications were dangerously depleting the earth’s protective ozone layer—exposing us to ever increasing levels of  harmful solar radiation. Just as with the issue of climate change today, there were those who dismissed those warnings as overblown and objected to taking action. The Reagan Administration itself was split, with then-Interior Secretary Donald Hodel infamously suggesting the solution was simply to wear hats and apply more sunscreen.

Ultimately, the decision was up to the president. Would Reagan heed the warnings of climate scientists and take action, or would he side with those who wanted to ignore ozone depletion? To find out, and see how his decision is instructive for our elected leaders today, check out the recent op-ed by David Jenkins, ConservAmerica’s Vice President for Government Affairs, on Huffington Post.

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Efficiency Lowers Gasoline Costs

At Tuesday night’s presidential debate, a citizen asked President Obama whether he agreed with Energy Secretary Steven Chu’s statements that it’s not his department’s policy to lower gas prices.

Neither Obama nor Mitt Romney directly answered the man’s question, defaulting instead to energy talking points. They might as well have handed the man campaign brochures and moved on to the next question.

The question was a missed opportunity to level with the public about energy – solving the problem does not lend itself to bumper-sticker sloganeering, every energy resource has its pros and cons, and America is not in complete control of its energy destiny.

The last point deserves further comment. The Department of Energy cannot control gasoline prices, no matter who’s in charge. Supply and demand largely dictate what you pay. The price at the neighborhood pump is at the tail end of a long chain that is influenced primarily by the market.

The oil market is global. Prices are the result of global supply and demand factors. Rising domestic supplies would be sold into that global pool. There would be no home-team discount for American drivers. High prices make some harder-to-reach domestic sources—ultra deepwater, for example—profitable to produce. If prices fell below the point at which these sources make money, they wouldn’t be produced.

If it suited them, oil-exporting countries could dial back their production to offset higher U.S. output in order to keep prices high. That is a good reason, among many, to use energy as efficiently as possible. The cheapest gallon of gasoline in town is the gallon you don’t have to buy.

Energy efficiency has bipartisan appeal. Polls consistently show the public values saving energy and supports policies to encourage it. If there is one point on which Republican and Democratic leaders should find common ground, it ought to be energy efficiency.

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Coastal Barrier Law Saves Resources and Money

Fiscal stewardship and environmental stewardship are two sides of the same coin. Both are needed to ensure that we do not pass unfair burdens onto future generations. Accordingly, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that good stewardship of our natural resources also can result in better fiscal health and significant savings for taxpayers.

Thirty years ago, on October 18, President Ronald Reagan signed into law the Coastal Barrier Resources Act, which prohibited federal financial assistance for building on about 700 miles of undeveloped barrier islands on the Atlantic and Gulf coasts.

Sunrise off Nanny Goat Beach on Georgia’s Sapelo Island (NOAA)

The law passed by wide margins, as Republicans and Democrats joined forces to pass legislation reflecting shared values of sensible stewardship and responsible fiscal management.

The legislation stopped what Reagan noted was a “subsidy spiral:” high costs of initial construction, which during Reagan’s time totaled about $25,000 per acre, and recurring costs of replacing buildings, roads, bridges, and utility lines damaged by the inevitable next hurricane. A 2002 Interior Department study estimated $1.3 billion in cumulative taxpayer savings by 2010.

The law does not bar development, but discourages it by requiring developers and other non-federal parties to pay all costs of building in such risky places.

Coastal barrier islands provide valuable services. They shield the mainland from the full force of hurricane winds and storm surges. Barrier islands protect habitat-rich mainland marshes and estuaries, and create inlets that offer good habitat for productive fisheries and migratory birds.

Undeveloped barrier islands are part of the John H. Chafee Coastal Barrier Resources System, named after the Republican senator from Rhode Island and renowned conservationist who sponsored the legislation and was instrumental in getting it enacted into law.

As Reagan noted in signing the legislation, the Coastal Barrier Resources Act earned widespread support, including the American Red Cross, taxpayer advocates, conservation groups, and coastal states. Members of Congress, Republicans and Democrats alike, worked together to pass an imaginative bill that, as Reagan wrote, “solves real problems in the stewardship of our natural resources.”

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Conservation Missing from Last Night’s Debate

There were no surprises in last night’s presidential debate when it came to energy policy. Both President Obama and Governor Romney stuck to their campaign talking points.

Unfortunately, it also wasn’t surprising that environmental stewardship did not come up once during the debate. Not in the questions asked by moderator Jim Lehrer. Not in any of the candidates’ remarks. No mention of how we can keep air and water clean. No discussion about conserving America’s great heritage of open space, wildlife, and parks. Not a word about climate change.

The prevailing narrative is that the environment is a low-profile issue for most voters. The economy, budget, health, and education rank higher in most voters’ minds, and appropriately those issues receive most of the attention. Still, poll after poll shows that voters of all political stripes expect their leaders to be responsible stewards whose policies deliver clean air, clean water, and common-sense energy efficiency.

Debates are the best opportunity Americans have to hear from the candidates about these important stewardship issues. A strong economy, good health care, and a high quality of life depend on a clean environment and conserving our country’s immense natural endowment. We need to hear, in an unscripted forum, the candidates’ ideas about stewardship.

By working together, our country has made great progress in reducing pollution and protecting our natural heritage, but the work remains unfinished. It will be on the plate of whoever is elected president in five weeks. There will be one more chance, on October 16 at New York’s Hofstra University, for the presidential candidates to talk about their environmental views at a debate. Let’s hope that chance is not missed.

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