Environmental Policy: Carter vs. Reagan

Environmental policy has varied greatly over the past 40 years. The stark contrast between various administrations is highlighted by the Carter administration of the 70s and the Reagan administration of the 80s. Jimmy Carter is seen as a president who pushed for key pieces of environmental legislation, while Reagan is known for his skeptical view, undoing much of the work Carter had done — including White House solar panels.

In 1980, Jimmy Carter signed the Superfund law, formally known as the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA). This act funded the cleanup of numerous sites that contained hazardous wastes. Carter also signed the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act, which increased the amount of national parks and wildlife refuges in Alaska. The Carter administration contributed to the demonopolization of power companies by instituting the Public Utility Regulatory Policies Act, requiring public utilities to purchase their power from independent generators, some of which were renewable energy sources. Carter, a proponent of nuclear energy, created the United States Department of Energy, which is responsible for handling nuclear energy creation, waste disposal research, and energy conservation. 

Ronald Reagan’s environmental policy was very different. According to David Alberswerth of the Wilderness Society, “The Reagan administration adopted an extraordinarily aggressive policy of issuing leases for oil, gas, and coal development on tens of millions of acres of national lands.” The actions of Reagan have contributed to the disbelief in the ever-growing climate crisis that is so deeply ingrained in American politics. Reagan deregulated many of the environmental protections previously put in place in the name of protecting the American economy. When Reagan appointed Rita Lavelle as Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, she attempted to weaken the Clean Air Act through the reduction of pollution standards, which are the basis of the act. She continued on this path by cutting staff at the EPA by 21% from 1981 to 1983 and successfully worked to reduce the EPA’s operating budget by 27%. 

In 1984, Reagan attempted to take credit for the Superfund Act, stating that “where wastes were mismanaged in the past, we have moved aggressively under the Superfund program.” He then went on to attack Carter for not doing enough to clean up the hazardous wastes, even though Carter signed the act into law. Another point of contention to this claim by Reagan once again involved Lavelle, who managed the money for the Superfund. In the same year that Reagan claimed superiority for the use of the Superfund Act, Lavelle was sentenced to prison for perjury surrounding the misuse of funds of that very environmental act. To add to the hypocrisy, the Reagan administration only cleaned 6 out of 546 waste sites in his first term of the presidency. Reagan furthered his true stance on the Superfund Act by blocking a proposal to increase the budget to $9 billion.

That’s not to say Reagan didn’t contribute to the progress of environmentalism during his tenure as president. He created the first national park in American Samoa and expanded the acres of wilderness in the continental United States, increasing the amount of wilderness in California to 5.9 million acres. Comparatively, Carter was able to create 17 national monuments in Alaska that totaled to 56 million acres of land. Reagan then signed a law that made phosphate mining in Florida’s Osceola National Forest illegal, stopping more forest land from being developed on. 

The two administrations, though close in time proximity, took two greatly different approaches to environmentalism. Carter put forth many progressive policies to further research  sustainable methods, while Reagan supported free-market policies that tended to favor corporations at the expense of the environment. Much of Carter’s progress was halted by the Reagan administration, impacts of which can still be seen today. The diversion of focus on the environment to the economy has since become a prominent talking point within American politics. In 1983, Carter made a warning that has continual relevance today, declaring that “Every passing year of inaction exacerbates human suffering.” Though more than 3 decades have passed since the ending of the Reagan administration, the lasting impacts of the deregulation of the EPA and the pivot to partisan environmental politics are clear. 

Today, the 2020 election closely parallels the 1980 election with regard to environmental politics. As the climate crisis looms over the world, American politics is looking to the policy plans of Former Vice President Joe Biden and President Donald Trump. President Trump has followed in the footsteps of Reagan by making 99 environmental rollbacks. He also uses the rhetoric of Reagan by pushing an economy first agenda, often at the expense of the environment. On the flip side, Joe Biden has released the Biden Plan, detailing how his potential administration will tackle climate change, with calls for net-zero emissions and protection of biodiversity. Biden additionally advocates for the creation of more national parks, reminiscent of the Carter administration. Looking back on the past gives insight into what is at stake this November.


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