Arguably the most pernicious aspect of President Reagan’s environmental legacy was the 1987 decision by his Federal Communications Commission to repeal the Fairness Doctrine, a nearly 40-year-old effort to ensure that broadcasters were legitimately fair and balanced in their presentation of controversial issues. The Fairness Doctrine worked quite well for the mainstream media, allowing the Fourth Estate to honor its charge to keep the public fully informed about the day’s issues.
For reasons that can only be construed as ideological, Reagan’s FCC decided to tamper with something that was working just fine, throwing out the Fairness Doctrine and setting the stage for the right-wing domination of talk radio. Just a year after the Fairness Doctrine was abolished, Rush Limbaugh’s Sacramento, Calif.-based brand of far-right talk was syndicated nationally, allowing his demonization of Democrats and denial of scientific facts to shape public discourse for the next two decades. A series of denialist demagogues soon emerged in his wake, convincing millions of Americans that the Democratic Party was a clear and present danger — and that the greatest threat to civilization in our time, climate change, was nothing more than a left-wing anti-capitalist plot.
Five years ago, James Wolcott noted the severity of the damage Limbaugh inflicted upon America’s understanding of climate science:
On his TV show in 1994, he mocked, “Environmentalist wackos of the past three years have been talking about global warming, and they’ve been suggesting that the Earth is warming to the point that [mock crying] ‘we’re all going to die. We’re all going to melt. We’re going to burn,’ and we just got perhaps the coldest winter on record going on in many parts of the United States.” Flash forward to February 2007 and Limbaugh is still seizing upon every frigid snap as proof that global warming is liberal propaganda. “There is one [article] in the L.A. Times today: ‘Game Over on Global Warming?’ with a question mark after it. It has some interesting statistics in it, but not one story — not one story — will we see about global warming maybe not being real, in the middle of record cold.” He appears to think that if there were true global warming the earth would crisp evenly like a baked apple.
Hence he is unperturbed by the plight of polar bears, because he is as certain as any self-intoxicated know-it-all can be that there is no plight, only contrived melodrama. Most of you innocents in the noncombatant world may not be aware that right-wing ideologues have drafted polar bears as political pawns; they — the ideologues, that is, not the polar bears — understand that these creatures, like penguins, have an adorable, vulnerable appeal to average people, and can arouse more sympathy and calls to action than any sheaf of scientific studies.
“That’s how they intend to infuse you with guilt, and to make you feel sympathetic and sorry,” Limbaugh explained on his February 5, 2007, polar-bear broadcast, “so that you will sit around and the next time Hillary Clinton wants to take $40 billion of Exxon profits for global warming you’ll let her do it because you’ll feel guilty over having caused all this!” Therefore Rush and his confederates have been making a full-court effort to debunk photos of polar bears stranded on ice — as if the one photo they debunk invalidates all the other ones out there — and to contend that their number is thriving.
Limbaugh’s mockery of the threat climate change poses to us all has been drilled, baby, drilled into so many heads — hour after hour, day after day, amplified by his AM and FM acolytes, now repeated by an entire television network created in his ignorant image. A full 95 percent of all talk radio shows are hosted by “conservatives.” Is it really any wonder we’ve been losing the public opinion battle on action needed to combat climate change? By repealing the Fairness Doctrine, Reagan effectively censored the truth about climate change on the radio dial, allowing disinformation and denialism to deceive those who needed to hear reality most of all. (Not for nothing does young ex-conservative Jonathan Krohn note the role right-wing talk radio played in leading him down the crazed corridor of conservatism.)
I look back upon my 15-year-long fight to bring eco-awareness to the radio airwaves and realize that the folks who told me that a green radio show would not be successful were in fact telling me that Reagan would not approve of such a show, or any show that did not parrot the right-wing narrative du jour. I realize that the firewall that prevented me from telling talk radio fans about the walls of fire that could consume us (and nearly did in Texas last summer and most recently in New Mexico and Colorado, etc.) if we did not take action was constructed by the politician Don Henley so accurately described as the “tired old man we elected king.” Because of Reagan’s destructive decision of a quarter-century ago, lies became profitable and truth became objectionable.
I can’t relate to the adoration and allegiance the right feels for Reagan. If only they felt as strongly about Teddy Roosevelt, a Republican who understood that true conservatism meant conserving our most precious natural resources that make all life possible! Notice how the Right’s Reagan reverence coincides with its incessant invective about his predecessor, President Carter, who tried to do something about our overdependence on foreign oil, who tried to move our country in a clean-energy direction.
Most strikingly, I admire Carter for moving solar panels onto the White House roof. And if there is anything I hold in lower regard than taking them off — which Reagan infamously did — I cannot imagine what it would be. What could be more stupid and short-sighted, even if only from a symbolic perspective, than removing objects which sole purpose is to save money and generate clean energy? The sad thing is that with the current crop of Republican leaders in Washington, and in this “climate,” such short-sightedness will happen again.
Sorry, my conservative friends, but Ronald Reagan is not my hero. I know you say he won the Cold War, but his actions caused our country — and our world — to lose ground in the war against warming. By abandoning President Carter’s commitment to clean energy, and by allowing the denialist right to dominate the airwaves millions of Americans trust, Reagan set us on the course to have a rendezvous with destiny, all right — a destiny that will mean undue suffering for my child, and the children of so many in this warming and worried world. This pain is avoidable, or might have been, if we had seen leadership grow, instead of retract, on our now mounting environmental challenges.
Ironic, isn’t it, that in his famous 1964 speech endorsing Barry Goldwater, he declared:
We’ll preserve for our children this, the last best hope of man on earth, or we’ll sentence them to take the last step into a thousand years of darkness.
Think about his actions as president, and try not to choke on your anger.