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When Conservatives Tackled Environmental Problems

The 1980s were a time of ecological upheaval. It would still be some time before the dangers of global warming were fully understood, but we were already facing the negative consequences of human activity: smog, acid rain, nuclear reactor fallout. But the environmental issue that garnered the most attention was the 1985 discovery of the infamous ozone hole.

Within two years, a United Nations commission had set up an international gathering in Montreal, Canada to piece together a coordinated strategy for minimizing the damage. The agreement they reached, known as the Montreal Protocol, called for mandatory reduction and eventual phase-out of the use of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) and other ozone-depleting chemicals by all nations. As CFCs were released into the air, they would float up into the upper atmosphere where the chlorine atoms would separate from the chemical compound and bond with oxygen atoms taken from the ozone molecules. The Montreal Protocol also called for wealthier nations to establish a fund to help developing nations make the transition.

In the United States the Montreal Protocol prompted a backlash from the aerosol industry, which relied on CFCs to power spray cans, and strong opposition from DuPont and other CFC manufacturers. Despite this, most nations around the world quickly signed on, and the U.S. Senate voted unanimously to approve it. U.S. President Ronald Reagan, though known for saying, "Government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem," not only signed on, but encouraged the remaining holdout nations to do so as well.

The protocol marks an important milestone for the future quality of the global environment and for the health and well-being of all peoples of the world. Unanimous approval of the protocol by the Senate on March 14th demonstrated to the world community this country's willingness to act promptly and decisively in carrying out its commitments to protect the stratospheric ozone layer from the damaging effects of chlorofluorcarbons and halons, but our action alone is not enough. The protocol enters into force next January only if at least 11 nations representing two-thirds of worldwide consumption of chlorofluorcarbons and halons ratify the agreement. Our immediate challenge, having come this far, is to promote prompt ratification by every signatory nation.

Reagan knew when to step away from the rhetoric, acknowledge the science, and recognize a problem that could only be solved by government mandate.

Data made available only during the last few weeks demonstrate that our knowledge of ozone depletion is rapidly expanding. For our part, the United States will give the highest priority to analyzing and assessing the latest research findings to assure that the review process moves expeditiously.

The Montreal protocol is a model of cooperation. It is a product of the recognition and international consensus that ozone depletion is a global problem, both in terms of its causes and its effects. The protocol is the result of an extraordinary process of scientific study, negotiations among representatives of the business and environmental communities, and international diplomacy.

Today we face a similar looming disaster in runaway carbon emissions, but Republican leaders refuse to work with the global community as Reagan did. Today's Republicans revere the man, but they do not follow his example.

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