The problem - Evidence that industrial pollution was tampering with vital workings of the atmosphere.
The scene - Contentious talks taking place in a European capital to negotiate a treaty dealing with the complex problem.
The pushbacks - The problem is not real. Scientists are exaggerating. There is too much scientific uncertainty. Fixing the problem would cost too much and kill jobs.
America's top negotiator had in his hands a confidential cable from the president. The chief executive's instructions were very clear - negotiate the strongest possible treaty. On one point after another, the man in the Oval Office backed up Environmental Protection Agency and the State Department professionals who wanted a good treaty.
Within weeks, the treaty had been concluded, the start of aggressive international efforts to reduce the dangerous pollution. After winning Senate ratification the following year, the president called the treaty a "monumental global environmental achievement."
Obviously, this is not a story about Copenhagen in 2009. We all know how that turned out. The scene, instead, was Brussels in 1987, where an American negotiator taking part in secret talks held a cable from Ronald Reagan instructing him to negotiate a strong treaty to phase out substances depleting the atmosphere's protective ozone layer.
The resulting treaty was the Montreal Protocol. In addition to beginning the phaseout of ozone-depleting substances, the treaty has prevented greenhouse gas emissions equivalent to about five years' worth of global carbon dioxide emissions. That's because the ozone depleters also have heat trapping properties that, molecule for molecule, are thousands of times more powerful than CO2.
Greenhouse gas abatement was not the treaty's purpose, but it's worth noting that the Montreal Protocol is keeping the equivalent of 11 billion tons of CO2 out of the atmosphere every year. That's equivalent to eliminating nearly all U.S. and Chinese CO2 emissions every year.
Pretty impressive. Wait a minute, a skeptic says. Back up. What's that you said? Ronald Reagan pushed for the Montreal Protocol? Surely, he did not.
Did too. The Montreal Protocol was the work of the Gipper. That pains those on the left who don't want to give Reagan credit for anything. It flusters talk radio shock jocks and their Fox News fellow travelers on the right because it confounds their narrative that environmental stewardship is for liberal weenies, not for he-man conservatives.
Of course, no one could say for certain how Reagan might deal with climate change were he president today or what bills he might support.
Still, the Montreal Protocol was an achievement that he took a lot of pride in and it's a useful clue. When faced with mounting scientific concern about ozone depletion, Reagan listened to all sides, weighed the facts, and ultimately sided with the climate scientists who were urging him to take prudent action to safeguard our atmosphere.
Reagan was far more adept at blending principles with pragmatism than Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck and their ideologue acolytes would ever acknowledge. His administration worked with Democrats in Congress to finalize 43 wilderness bills that he signed into law, giving the highest level of protection to more than 10 million acres of public lands.
Reagan's EPA - after he brought in the incomparable William Ruckelshaus to clean up the mess left by Anne Gorsuch - ordered a 90 percent reduction in lead in gasoline. Reagan also signed legislation strengthening hazardous waste cleanup programs, safe drinking water standards, and the Clean Water Act.
His record as California governor bears consideration - he established motor vehicle emissions controls, put a scientist in charge of the board setting tailpipe standards, blocked dams on free-flowing rivers, stopped a proposed road across the Sierra wilderness, and negotiated a compact with Nevada to protect and restore Lake Tahoe through tougher land use controls.
Reagan spoke eloquently about the conservative stewardship ethic:
"What is a conservative after all, but one who conserves, one who is committed to protecting and holding close the things by which we live.... And we want to protect and conserve the land on which we live - our countryside, our rivers and mountains, our plains and meadows and forests. This is our patrimony. This is what we leave to our children. And our great moral responsibility is to leave it to them either as we found it or better than we found it."
What would Reagan do about climate change? Take a look at his record and judge for yourself. Or, even better, show it to your conservative friends or co-workers. They might be surprised.
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