Barbara Schlachter’s op ed March 27, 2015

Using the ‘precautionary principle’

George Schultz, who was secretary of state from 1982 to 1989, had a piece in The Washington Post a few weeks ago titled “A Reagan approach to climate change.” What I remember about President Ronald Reagan is that when he moved into the White House, he removed the solar panels from the roof that President Jimmy Carter had installed there. Was he denying climate change, or did he simply not want to support alternative energy sources for political reasons?

Whichever, it turns out he has left a legacy on climate change action that will stand for all time. When scientists warned that the ozone layer was shrinking and that a catastrophe was in the making, Reagan decided not to argue with the doubters but provide action that would benefit them as well. U.S. industry and DuPont went into high gear and found a set of replacement chemicals that were implicated in the problem. “Action is better than aspiration,” Schultz wrote. And this action worked right then and there. It became the basis for the Montreal Protocol, regarded as the world’s most successful environmental treaty.

While Schultz uses the words “insurance policy” to describe Reagan’s action, he could have invoked something called “the precautionary principle.” This means that if there is a good chance that a course of action or inaction would result in less-than-desirable consequences, the best decision is always one that works to conserve our environment from possible disaster. This reminds me of the recent cartoon that has someone asking under a “Climate Summit” banner, “What if it’s a big hoax and we create a better world for nothing?” Meanwhile in the background there is a list of what has been gained: energy independence, preserve rainforests, sustainability, green jobs, livable cities, renewable, clean water and air, healthy children, etc.

Schultz proposes two policies. The first is “significant and sustained support for energy research and development.” This would enhance our ability to produce electricity from the wind and the sun at the same cost as from other sources and help us find ways to store energy from intermittent sources.

The second is to “level the playing field for competing sources of energy so that costs imposed on the community are borne by the sources of energy that create them, most particularly carbon dioxide.” He recommends a revenue-neutral carbon tax, returning all funds generated to the taxpayers. It is therefore not really a new tax. Schultz didn’t say this, but it seems to me it represents a solution that Republicans and Democrats can agree on. Here’s an opportunity for Congress to take some leadership on this issue instead of waiting for the president to take all the action.

Schultz ends with a phrase he used earlier in his article: “mugged by reality.” That strikes me as pretty graphic. Who wants to be mugged? He says: “Before you get mugged by reality, take out an insurance policy. It’s the Reagan way.” Sens. Charles Grassley and Joni Ernst, Reps. Steve King, Rod Blum, David Young and Dave Loebsack, how about it?

Barbara Schlachter is a member of the 100Grannies for a Livable Future and the Iowa City Climate Advocates, affiliated with Citizens Climate Lobby.

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