A Time for Choosing: Part I

Isn’t it time for former Secretary of State George Shultz to retract some of his past statements about President Ronald Reagan and climate change?

I give Shultz credit for being one of the few prominent Republicans to embrace the scientific verdict on human-caused climate change, and to vociferously support the passage of federal revenue-neutral carbon tax legislation to reduce emissions. However, his March 2015 Washington Post op-ed on the climate crisis must be reconsidered in light of the recent passing of Justice Antonin Scalia.

In that op-ed, Shultz praised his ex-boss for showing leadership on the issue of reducing the industrial pollution that harmed the ozone layer, and suggested that if Reagan were around today, he’d demonstrate similar leadership on climate:

I am also impressed by an experience I had in the mid-1980s. Many scientists thought the ozone layer was shrinking. There were doubters, but everyone agreed that if it happened, the result would be a catastrophe. Under these circumstances, President Ronald Reagan thought it best not to argue too much with the doubters but include them in the provision of an insurance policy. With the very real potential for serious harm, U.S. industry turned on its entrepreneurial juices, and the Du Pont company developed a set of replacements for the chemicals implicated in the problem along a reasonable time frame and at a reasonable cost. It came up with something that could be done then — not some aspirational plan for 2050. Action is better than aspiration. As matters turned out, the action worked and became the basis for the Montreal Protocol, widely regarded as the world’s most successful environmental treaty. In retrospect, the scientists who were worried were right, and the Montreal Protocol came along in the nick of time. Reagan called it a “magnificent achievement.”

We all know there are those who have doubts about the problems presented by climate change. But if these doubters are wrong, the evidence is clear that the consequences, while varied, will be mostly bad, some catastrophic. So why don’t we follow Reagan’s example and take out an insurance policy?

(Months after writing this op-ed, Shultz continued to insist that Reagan would have taken action on climate change, citing the Montreal Protocol precedent.)

Yes, Reagan and Margaret Thatcher stepped up to the leadership plate on the ozone layer. However, there were other crises Reagan ignored–acid rain, AIDS and, yes, climate change.

Reagan, of course, appointed Scalia to the US Supreme Court in 1986. As Cenk Uygur noted shortly after his passing, Scalia was an unrepentant science denier–and that includes climate science, as his dissent in the 2007 Massachusetts v. Environmental Protection Agency decision indicates:

In other words, regulating the buildup of CO2 and other greenhouse gases in the upper reaches of the atmosphere, which is alleged to be causing global climate change [emphasis mine], is not akin to regulating the concentration of some substance that is polluting the air…

The Court’s alarm over global warming [emphasis mine] may or may not be justified, but it ought not distort the outcome of this litigation. This is a straightforward administrative-law case, in which Congress has passed a malleable statute giving broad discretion, not to us but to an executive agency. No matter how important the underlying policy issues at stake, this Court has no business substituting its own desired outcome for the reasoned judgment of the responsible agency.

Presumably, Scalia was also disgusted by Shultz’s “alarm” over the “alleged” threat posed by human-caused climate change. This is the guy Shultz’s boss inflicted upon the Supreme Court. Doesn’t Shultz have an obligation to acknowledge that he got it wrong in his op-ed, and that a man who stuck SCOTUS with a science denier would have never led on climate?

If Shultz wants to argue that not all Republicans are (to quote my former co-host Betsy Rosenberg) “denyosaurs,” that’s fine. If he wants to point to the recently formed House Climate Solutions Caucus as an example of bipartisanship on this issue, that’s fine too. However, the suggestion that Reagan would have led on climate is, as Scalia might have put it, just so much jiggery-pokery.

NEXT: The scandal of how Scalia made it to SCOTUS.

UPDATE: More from Elliott Negin.

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.