Someone shared this recent political history reminder with me over the weekend. It encouraged me to remember to keep fighting the ethical, environmentally sane fight regardless of significant challenges and setbacks (Flint, MI, Corpus Christi, TX...). Hope it does the same for you.
An insurgent Republican captures the White House and unleashes a furious, in-broad-daylight assault on our environment. He installs a champion of polluters at the EPA, who moves to cripple the agency, slashing its budgets, undoing public health protections across-the-board, and all but ending enforcement actions against bad actors.
Donald Trump, right?
Yes ... but also Ronald Reagan.
We have seen this movie before, colleagues, albeit the circumstances differ in key ways.
This brief account of how environmentalists a generation ago fought back offers up lessons-learned and tactics worth emulating.
Before Donald Trump, there was Ronald Reagan
When the Reagan Administration in the 1980s launched its all-out attack on environmental and public health safeguards, we and our allies mounted an unprecedented mobilization effort that exceeded expectations -- an object lesson for all of us in the trenches today.
``Environmental organizations launched an effective counter-mobilization that included aggressive fundraising, publicity, and coordinated action with congressional allies,’’ recalled Rutgers University political scientists Daniel J. Tichenor and Avram Fechter. That effort, they wrote, showcased ``the resiliency of many oppositional groups even when they are under assault from a breakthrough president.’’
Like Trump, Reagan appointed an EPA administrator (Anne Gorsuch) who opposed the very mission of the agency.
So drastic were Reagan’s proposed EPA budget cuts that a 1982 Washington Post headline read: ```Strangulation’ Budget Revealed for EPA.’’
By 1983, the agency's budget had been slashed 30 percent and its workforce reduced from 14,269 to 11,474. EPA enforcement actions plummeted by 84 percent during Reagan's first year in office.
Gorsuch had ``induced many of its best professional staff to quit, and has sabotaged the agency's enforcement effort by continual reorganizations and cutbacks. She has scrimped on the science and monitoring that must underlie effective regulation,'' a 1983 New York Times editorial fumed.
But environmental groups fought back with a vengeance. Leaders of 10 large environmental groups, calling themselves the Group of Ten, forged an alliance and set out to show Americans exactly how the Reagan Administration’s actions were imperiling their well-being and quality of life.
NRDC and the other environmental groups produced two influential reports that helped turn the public against Reagan's war. We also delivered to Congress a million signatures on petitions calling for the ouster of Interior Secretary James Watt. A grassroots group, called ''Save EPA,'' sprang up. NRDC published an ad in the Washington Post, styled as an open letter to EPA staff, with this message: ''Don't Give Up.''
The first report was called ''Indictment: The Case Against the Reagan Environmental Record.'' It summarized 220 administrative policies and actions that undermined efforts to control pollution and protect public health.
``We found an across-the-board pattern of lawlessness and heedlessness with regard to the nation's natural resources unequaled since the days of the robber barons a century ago,'' NRDC's Richard Ayes told the New York Times. Some 7,000 printed copies of ''Indictment" were to be distributed to members of Congress, stakeholders and the public.
The second report was called ``Hitting Home,'' a 66-page document that detailed an array of imminent health threats, such as dangerous levels of the insecticide toxaphene in Great Lakes fish, risks of pesticide contamination faced by Texas farmworkers in the Rio Grande Valley and damage caused by acid rain from New England to Wisconsin and Michigan.
''The hundreds of people across the country who helped prepare this report are angry and more than a little frightened. They believed the laws were in place to protect their health, their land and the extraordinary beauty of their nation's great parks. Now all this is cast in doubt,'' said ''Hitting Home.''
The report concluded that the severe budget cuts at EPA would make it more difficult for states to carry out their own air, water, hazardous waste and pesticide programs. Said the New York Times:
``The report specifically criticized EPA's cuts in aid to help states carry out their own air, water, hazardous waste and pesticide programs... It said the grants had been cut by up to 50 percent at a time when state legislatures were unable to take over the programs. In New York State, officials have said the cuts may force them to shut down half the state's 250 air monitoring stations.''
The report itself added:
``California, the Carolinas, Florida, Illinois, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Washington, all tell the same stories: less sampling of air and water quality, cursory reviews of permits for new sources of pollution and fewer inspections of existing sources.''
''Hitting Home'' found that the administration's cut in funding for research into Great Lakes pollution -- from $30 million to $3 million -- had forced the virtual shutdown of the environmental agency's Large Lakes Research Laboratory at Grosse Ile, Mich. That's the very lab that had found the levels of toxaphene in Great Lakes fish were double the allowable federal limit.
The report also said the administration's refusal to issue tighter air pollution standards on coal-burning factories and power plants was leading to the death of hundreds of lakes from acid rain. It estimated that the loss in fishing and tourism business in New York and New England was $2.5 billion a year.
And that problem is spreading, ''Hitting Home'' warned, noting that 2,200 lakes and 1,700 miles of streams in Wisconsin and Michigan could be in jeopardy because of high levels of acidity.
The report concluded that the administration had done nothing to crack down on improper pesticide spraying in the Rio Grande Valley in Texas, even though large numbers of workers had experienced symptoms of pesticide poisoning.
In the face of such threats, it was no surprise that environmental groups saw a surge in membership and contributions; at the same time, public officials encountered a widespread public backlash against the Reagan Administration's environmental policies.
A New York Times/CBS News Poll in the fall of 1981 found a large majority of the Americans supported strong protection of the environment even if it required economic sacrifice.
``The poll results suggest that the policies of the Reagan Administration, which would relax environmental laws to ease the economic and regulatory burden on business and industry, are out of tune with the sentiments of most Americans,’’ the New York Times said.
The resistance movement grew to such an extent that ``even many business leaders became apprehensive, in part because they needed an EPA whose actions were predictable and whose officials were competent, and partly because they recognized that, as the traditional public villains of environmental politics, they would be the ultimate victims of political recriminations if the public believed that EPA was being corrupted,’’ Richard N.L Andrews wrote in ``Managing the Environment, Managing Ourselves: A History of American Environmental Policy.’’
The Reagan Administration's overreach even turned off some Reagan's allies. For example, Wyoming Sens. Alan K. Simpson and Malcolm Wallop ended up co-sponsoring legislation that sought to bar oil and gas exploration in their state's wilderness areas. ``Constituent pressure,'' a Simpson aide explained.
``It's hard to get up and argue that you have to let the big steel and chemical companies pollute so they can make more money,'' another Hill staffer said. ``There are a lot of voters who are still suspicious of Big Business. People can see clean water and they know when they're breathing clean air. But many of them don't understand why they should give these up to promote productivity.''
One environmental activist told the Washington Post: ``These guys don’t want to go home and explain how they voted to gut a pesticide bill or a clean air bill.’’
At the end of the Reagan era, to be sure, eight years had been lost during which significant progress could have been made toward a safer, cleaner environment. But as the N.Y. Times also noted in 1989:
``... the environmentalists acknowledge that their worst fears were not realized... (and) the laws, agencies and public lands survived the Reagan years more or less intact.’’
Colleagues: Thanks for reading. The threats we face are even more dire than during the Reagan era, but we are stronger, smarter and better resourced than ever before. And given the strong public support for environmental protection and climate action, we can do even better than our elders did in the 1980s. We must.
NRDC Action Fund