When Ronald Reagan moved into the White House in 1981, one of his first official acts as president was to take down the rooftop solar panels installed by Jimmy Carter. It was a clear message to environmentalists after a decade of progress on environmental legislation: Progress was over.
By itself, however, it made little sense. Why was a self-purported fiscal conservative choosing to spend more on the government’s electricity bill?
Reagan was reacting to the passage of legislation like the Endangered Species Act, the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act, which expanded government regulatory power. He was distrustful of the federal government’s intrusive role in industry – a distrust that has since guided most conservatives in America.
But in the past 30 years, these conservatives have failed to offer alternatives to regulatory legislation for an ever-increasing array of environmental issues.
For example, during this time period, CFCs were depleting the ozone layer, leading to a hole that was found by scientists in Antarctica’s atmosphere. James Watt, Reagan’s Energy Secretary, responded by advising the American people to wear stronger sunscreen — a move that gained national notoriety.
Fast forward to last year’s Republican National Convention, and this same adversarial attitude toward environmental issues is obvious. The crowd at the convention furiously chanted “Drill, baby, drill!” a call to open up the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil and gas exploration for lower gas prices and energy independence.
Interestingly, earlier that year the Energy Information Administration, an arm of the Department of Energy, published a report about what drilling in the ANWR might accomplish. Its findings? Production would not begin for 10 years and would peak just 10 years after that. The amount of oil produced would be too insignificant to affect oil prices by more than $1 a barrel. OPEC could easily offset that gain by restraining its production even slightly.
Even if we decided to exploit all of our offshore oil, it would take about five years to get the permits, find the reserves, dig the wells and start pumping. By 2030, domestic production would only increase by 3 percent, still not enough to significantly affect oil prices.
That drilling in ANWR was even considered a solution to the looming energy crisis was a testament to how out of touch the party was with reality.
Environmental problems pose a special dilemma to conservative ideology. Ecosystems do not recognize political boundaries or private property. Addressing problems like pollution and habitat loss generally requires restricting the liberties of people on private property.
Furthermore, many environmental problems are caused by what economists call “market externalities,” or when the market fails to assign the costs of a detrimental activity to the responsible party. The free market, a favorite tool of conservatives, is actually the cause of the problem in these cases.
The response to global warming from many conservatives is an illustration of this ideological dilemma. Instead of focusing on solutions, the GOP’s response has been to deny that it is actually happening. The fear is that this type of problem will inevitably lead to a global governing body controlling access to a resource as basic as energy. This, however, is just a limitation of the current conservative imagination.
When conservatives reacted to scientists’ warnings about global warming with denial, they effectively walked away from the negotiating table, leaving liberals to make all of the policy decisions. As we near the U.N. Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen in December, the right risks seeing a whirlwind of change happen while they still have their heads buried in the sand.
This is an opportunity for conservatives to make themselves relevant again by offering fiscally responsible solutions like investment in research and development of alternative energies and market corrections before it’s too late.
Erik Anderson is a senior natural resources major. His column appears Wednesdays in the Collegian. Letters and feedback can be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org.