Before the end of his first term in office, President Ronald Reagan seemed to alienate, outrage, and motivate more environmentalists than any of his predecessors. His reforms, his bureaucratic strategies, and the people he put into positions of power all had the appearance of reversing the political successes of the environmental movement of the previous two decades. A couple of high-profile scandals at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and at the Department of the Interior early in Reagan’s presidency underscored how the president acted to undermine the legal framework for protecting human health in the environment and for limiting the exploitation of natural resources. Writing in 1985, historian Samuel Hays characterized that moment in time as “the Reagan Antienvironmental Revolution.” For Hays and others who reacted to events as they happened, Reagan’s presidency amounted to a concerted and unprecedented attack on environmental regulation; for this reason it marked an important moment in the history of environmental politics.
Even from the distance afforded by a few more decades, historians have seldom allowed this sharp critique to dull, but analyses of this key moment have become more nuanced, touching on several of its different long-term implications. Some are quite specific: stripped funding from international agencies as a result of alleged connections to abortion clinics; intensive clear-cutting of old growth forests (and elimination of the species diversity that had been nursed in such areas); negotiation of an international treaty banning ozone-depleting chemicals—just to name three. Others have more to do with ways of thinking that found political legitimacy under Reagan. For the writer Chris Mooney (2006), for example, Reagan helped to legitimize a “Republican war on science” that delegitimized science-based environmental legislation until well into the twenty-first century.
I was asked to comment about the state of scholarship on Reagan and environmental issues, for an ambitious project called A Companion to Ronald Reagan. In the essay I agree that the Reagan years were of fundamental importance for understanding changes in environmental politics and I outline three principal themes that not only have drawn scholars’ attention in the past but also may still be ripe for future research: these are topics to which historians still need to add clarity and new material. The first is the Reagan administration’s attempt at a dramatic rewriting of regulatory policies in the early 1980s. The second is the variety of reactions to Reagan among environmental groups, domestically and internationally, which often gives rise to substantially different attitudes and political strategies among environmental groups. The third is the role of science in specific environmental issues such as forest ecosystems, acid rain, or the composition of the atmosphere.