As folks across Florida don bikinis or swim trunks and head to the pool or the beach this holiday weekend, they probably don’t realize that they have President Ronald Reagan to thank for being able to do so safely.
As odd as that sounds, it’s true. In the 1980s the world was facing a big problem. Scientists had discovered that chemicals used in air conditioners, refrigeration equipment, and aerosols—such as chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) and hydrochlorofluorocarbons (HCFCs)—were rapidly depleting the earth’s stratospheric ozone layer.
That ozone layer acts as a protective barrier, preventing us from being bombarded with much more dangerous levels of the sun’s ultraviolet UV-B radiation. Without it, exposed skin would burn in five minutes and the public’s risk of skin cancer would skyrocket.
Not everyone in the Reagan administration took the ozone depletion threat seriously. Interior Secretary Donald Hodel infamously suggested that the president should just tell everyone to wear hats, sunglasses, and extra layers of sunscreen.
Fortunately, Reagan—who had recently had skin cancer removed from his nose—did not take that advice.
Instead, he became the world’s first head of state to personally approve a national negotiating policy on ozone protection. He then led the effort to push through the Montreal Protocol treaty to phase out the use of CFCs and HCFCs.
When faced with mounting concern about ozone depletion, Reagan listened to the scientists, weighed all the facts, and chose to act. That is genuine conservative leadership.
The treaty has resulted in the phase-out of 99 percent of known ozone-depleting chemicals.
According to the EPA, had Reagan not acted as he did, the U.S. alone would see an additional 280 million cases of skin cancer, 1.5 million skin cancer deaths, and 45 million cases of cataracts.
Reagan’s success with the Montreal Protocol was a point of pride for the Republican Party. Its 1988 party platform heaped effusive praise on the treaty and called for a similar approach in solving other complex global problems such as tropical forest destruction and climate change.
That would have been nice, but special interests —mainly fossil fuel companies—swooped in and swayed the party away from tackling those problems.
In Reagan, America had a leader who was responsible and forward thinking enough to respond when action was needed to safeguard our atmosphere. He also trusted our free enterprise system enough to recognize that business and industry were up to the task, and would adapt to the necessary change.
Today, climate change is a much more visible and advanced threat than it was in 1988, and we could use Reagan’s brand of conservative leadership in tackling that problem.
While the sun’s rays are now less dangerous, the sun’s heat is becoming more so. The heat index in South Florida over the past few weeks has been hitting 105 degrees.
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Scientists predict that South Florida will soon see more than 120 days a year where the heat index exceeds that mark.
Beyond oppressive heat and humidity, climate change is bringing heavier rains, stronger hurricanes, and rising sea levels. These effects already threaten the state’s drinking water supplies, agriculture, real estate values, and tourism economy.
Two of Reagan’s top cabinet officials, James Baker and George Shultz, are pushing for a carbon fee and dividend approach to address climate change, which is a market-friendly solution long preferred by economists and business leaders.
In a recent Fox News op-ed, Baker and Shultz point out how this climate solution will not only tackle climate change, but can also dig us out of our current economic crisis.
Florida has always been a great place to live and visit. Its weather, beautiful beaches, recreation opportunities, and a favorable business climate are tremendous assets. Climate change poses an existential threat to those assets and the lifestyle of every Floridian.
When faced with a similar threat, President Reagan felt a moral duty to heed scientific warnings and do what is necessary to protect the public. Florida and the nation need our leaders to do the same today.
Championing a smart climate solution, like the Baker and Schultz proposal, would be a good start.
David Jenkins is president of Conservatives for Responsible Stewardship, a national organization with more than 2000 Florida members. “The Invading Sea” is the opinion arm of the Florida Climate Reporting Network, a collaborative of news organizations across the state focusing on the threats posed by the warming climate.