American Crash: Part III

President Reagan not only derailed our progress on infrastructure and race relations, he’s also responsible for this planet speeding towards climate catastrophe.

Remember Reagan’s November 1979 speech announcing his third run for the GOP presidential nomination (following failed bids in 1968 and 1976)? Remember how that speech was filled with moronic attacks on President Carter’s bold, forward-thinking policies on energy?

The details of Reagan’s assault on our environment were perhaps best chronicled in this 2004 Grist piece, but we don’t often recall that Reagan was warned directly about the coming climate crisis–and he just didn’t give a damn. As Ben Block noted in a 2008 WorldWatch Institute piece:

On June 23, 1988, in sweltering heat, [climate scientist James] Hansen told a U.S. Senate committee he was 99 percent certain that the year’s record temperatures were not the result of natural variation. It was the first time a lead scientist drew a connection between human activities, the growing concentration of atmospheric pollutants, and a warming climate.

“It’s time to stop waffling so much and say that the evidence is pretty strong that the greenhouse effect is here,” Hansen told reporters.

Scientists first expressed concern about possible climate change more than a decade before Hansen’s testimony. The most-publicized report came from the National Academy of Sciences in 1977. It warned that average temperatures may rise 6 degrees Celsius by 2050 due to the burning of coal.

Around the same time, Hansen, a space scientist at NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies (GISS) in New York, began studying the effect of greenhouse gases on climate. His first paper on the subject, published in the journal Science in 1981, predicted that burning fossil fuels would increase global temperatures by 4.5 degrees Fahrenheit (2.5 degrees Celsius) by the end of the 21st century.

The incoming Reagan administration responded to Hansen’s predictions by cutting funding for GISS.

You can trace a direct line from Reagan’s reckless disregard of the climate crisis to the rhetoric and actions of such figures as Senator James Inhofe. This is why the argument that Reagan would have taken action on climate change stretches credibility. Reagan had multiple opportunities to lead on climate–and he botched all of them. (There were plenty of warnings about the climate crisis in the 1980s, but the Gipper evidently had other things on his soon-to-be-enfeebled mind.)

In his September and October 1980 debate performances, Reagan made it clear that he didn’t consider environmental protection a priority. As you listen to today’s Republican presidential candidates mock or downplay the importance of reducing carbon pollution, just remember: they’re following in their hero’s footsteps, and leading us on a pathway to hell.

NEXT: Reagan’s declaration of war on women.

UPDATE: From 2012, my radio colleague Betsy Rosenberg on the right’s Reagan fetish (Part I and Part II).

D.R. Tucker

D. R. Tucker is a Massachusetts-based journalist who has served as the weekend contributor for the Washington Monthly since May 2014. He has also written for the Huffington Post, the Washington Spectator, the Metrowest Daily News, investigative journalist Brad Friedman's Brad Blog and environmental journalist Peter Sinclair's Climate Crocks.