Why Republicans Can Be Environmentalists Too

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republicans-environment

Don’t worry – this is not a political rant. This is a mere acknowledgement of the fact that many Republicans believe supporting environmental protection policy is inherently un-Republican, that voting in favor of the environment is a betrayal of Republican party values and that it is impossible to be both a Republican and an environmentalist. Here’s why none of that is actually true and why Republicans can be environmentalists AND good Republicans all at the same time.

Republican stance on climate

Last week Speaker of the House Paul Ryan (R) proposed a plan to repeal all climate change regulations under the Clean Air Act. Why? Speaker Ryan says it is to “bring some humility” to organizations like the EPA. Humility? The EPA is not an egotistical tyrant, and nearly all major legislation proposed by the EPA already undergoes court challenges that scrutinize the data and delay policies from going into effect for years. So what is Speaker Ryan’s proposal really all about? It is true that a vocal majority of Republican leaders convey a clear anti-environment stance on behalf of the party. In order to fully understand that stance, we have to take a look at the foundational tenants behind it and what makes being anti-environmental a proper Republican value… or not.

Anti-Environmental Tenant #1: Climate change is a hoax

Congress as a whole has officially admitted that climate change is real. However, 56% of congressional Republican still deny it or question the science. According to this study of nine developed Western nations (as reported in Yahoo! News), the Republican party is the only conservative party that still actively denies climate change and the human role in it as a matter of party policy. In fact, all eight of the other conservative party platforms in the study support the validity of anthropogenic climate change as well as climate measures to counteract it. So why is the conservative party in the U.S. going against the current global conservative grain to deny climate change?

A few years back a group of profit-minded players, including multi-billion dollar gas and oil companies, the Koch brothers and a few think tanks, created an anti-science rhetoric that swept through the Republican party and its members, converting rational-minded people into science skeptics who doubted the very existence of climate change, let alone the role we play in causing. In other words, this tenant was fabricated in order to help large energy companies make more money despite the environmental damage and pollution they caused.

In the meantime, 97% of active climate scientists today agree about the reality of human-driven climate change. Government organizations from the EPA to NASA corroborate the findings of and contribute to the climate research of independent scientists. The global community has risen to meet the realities of human impact on the planet and have surpassed America in waste reduction, emissions control, and renewable energy use by embarrassing margins. The global medical community has documented in study after study the devastating effects of pollution on human health. Human-driven climate change has been proven over and over again to be very real indeed. Because of all this strong evidence from science and medicine, this particular tenant of the Republican party’s strict anti-environmental stance is coming to be seen for what it is: pure myth.

Why do a vocal majority of Republican party leaders still cling to it? That brings us to:

Anti-Environmental Tenant #2: Environmentalism is bad for business

The principal rationale for Speaker Ryan’s proposed anti-environment plan (and the rationale behind John Boehner’s previous litany of attacks on federal environmental policy) is that environmentalism is bad for business. The Republican party prides itself on being the pro-business, free-market party. All that bad environmental news is a real downer, and asking businesses to spend money to stop polluting so much doesn’t exactly engender warm, fuzzy feelings from businesses toward the party that is supposed to be protecting them. Any anti-business policy is inherently anti-Republican, right? But is environmentalism really bad for business? Yes and no. The answer depends on which business you are looking at. And also, what does “bad” really mean?

Take Michael Greenstone’s 2002 study of the financial costs of the Clean Air Act showing a clear financial cost for businesses to comply with post-2002 measures, which include reduced investments in those businesses and lost jobs. Okay, that sounds like it was bad for business. Those businesses. But as the article points out, the financial losses were relatively very little compared to the size of the industry, the employees got jobs elsewhere and the investment money was spent elsewhere too.

Is the Clean Air Act bad for business overall? The answer is definitively “no”. According to studies, there have been a number of enormous benefits from the Clean Air Act — not just significant reductions in air pollution and in public health issues like infant mortality and early deaths (both of which have seen dramatic reductions annually since 1990 due to cleaner air), but huge business benefits too. The Clean Air Act is singularly responsible for saving 13 to 17 million ‘lost work’ days per year that were previously lost to air-pollution related illnesses of the workers. Healthier workers translates into both medical savings and higher productivity. Between those two factors alone, the Clean Air Act is estimated to have saved anywhere from 3 to 90 times the cost of the expenditures for pollution control (EPA), which is an enormous economic gain for our country.

Anti-Environmental Tenant #3: Environmentalism is bad because it causes the overreach of federal regulation

In the 1980’s Republicans began to regret the bipartisan nature of the environmental measures passed in the 1960’s and 1970’s, choosing to demonize them as symbols of the government overstepping its bounds in terms of liberty and property. Early Republican anti-environmental assaults provoked great backlash for the GOP because they were distinctly out of tune with public sentiment that the environment should be protected (NY Times). American popular opinion continues to favor major environmental efforts. According to Pew Research, more Americans oppose increased fracking than support it (47% to 41%). Far more Americans support developing alternative energy than expanding the exploitation of oil, coal and natural gas (60% to 30%). 81% of Americans support stricter regulation on gas and fuel efficiency for cars and trucks. Far more Americans (61%) favor stricter limits on power plant emissions to mitigate climate change than those who oppose (31%). Among Republicans, that number is split evenly with 47% on either side of the fence. 71% of Americans believe that the country “should do whatever it takes to protect the environment”. Republicans are again evenly divided on this question.

The fact that so many Republicans (and in some cases as many who do as who don’t) support environmental policy and protection shows that environmental historian William Cronon (University of Wisconsin – Madison) was correct when he wrote in 2001, “Even conservatives who favor limited state power understand that government has an appropriate role to play in domains that the private sector does not handle well on its own. One of these is national defense. Another is conservation.”

Setting the record straight

Okay, so if climate change is real and environmental policy has been proven to be good for the economy, then two of the tenants behind the anti-environment stance of the Republican party are false, and the third is a matter of debate supported by only about half of Republicans. Yet highly public Republican antagonism toward environmentalism and derision of fellow party members who skew too far “left” on environmental topics continues, keeping environmentally-minded Republican politicians silenced and even spreading some misinformation to the Republican constituency. It’s time to set the record straight on environmentalism and give Republicans the choice to be both loyal to the GOP and be environmentalists at the same time.

Truth #1: Environmentalism has historically been a Republican party value 

The Republican party has not historically been against environmentalism. In fact, Ronald Reagan thought that protecting the environment should be a non-partisan issue. Theodore Roosevelt was a major environmentalist and conservationist. Live Science lists 5 other surprising conservative environmentalists in history who had enormous impact on environmental policy, including Richard Nixon and Barry Goldwater. In fact, it was Nixon who signed the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, the National Environmental Policy Act and the Endangered Species Act into law — and all with strong bipartisan support. Nixon also created the EPA (the agency against which Republican leaders now wage unending battles to blockade and defund). It was Dwight Eisenhower who set aside lands on the North Slope of Alaska to protect one of the last great caribou herds on earth, creating the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (the very same refuge Republicans later fought to drill). In fact, Republicans used to compete with Democrats over who was more committed conserving natural resources, reducing pollution and preserving wild lands because both parties agreed that these priorities were in the national interest (NY Times).

Truth #2: Some major Republican leaders today believe in environmentalism

As I stated earlier, environmentalism is not strictly a liberal policy, but also a conservative policy worldwide. Despite the loud anti-environment movement, there are major Republican leaders in America today who acknowledge human-driven climate change (such as Sen. John McCaine) and even some who argue that climate change policy fits precisely into Republican values. According to former Rep. Bob Inglis (S.C.), conservatives are better poised to embrace solutions to climate change because of their inherent belief in the free enterprise system and its ability to innovate in order to solve problems (Yahoo! News).

In recent times, environmental policy hasn’t been an entirely one-party issue either. Just this spring, Republican politicians worked side-by-side with Democrats to pass new energy policy that, although skirting the hot-button issue of climate change, promotes land and water conservation, carbon sequestration research and renewable energy sourcing (NY Times).

The organization ConservAmerica, originally founded in 1995 as “Republicans For Environmental Protection” still today argues that “Conservation is Conservative” and that stewardship of America’s natural resources and passing on clean air, clean water, and uniquely American landscapes to future generations is common sense and should be a bi-partisan priority.

As Cronon says, “Honoring our heritage by preserving public lands, remembering the deep spiritual ties to the land that led the United States to be the first nation in the world to create wilderness parks — what actions could more conservative than these?” (NY Times).

Truth #3: Environmentalism can be pro-business and economically superior to the alternative

A true free-market economy allows for businesses to sink or swim based on market demand and competitive advantage in a changing world where old titan companies sometimes go out of business or are forced to change to keep up with progress and trends. Just as our demand for technology has driven innovation in computing, smart phones and Internet connectivity, so too does our demand for sustainable goods, renewable energy sources and pollution reduction, capture and treatment technologies drive innovation and economic growth in those industries. As this GreenBiz article points out, small businesses and entrepreneurs stand to profit significantly in the growing field of pro-business environmentalism.

More and more research and studies point to the numerous economic benefits of switching to renewable energy sources. Greenpeace’s 2050 Energy [R]evolution Report, for example, written in collaboration with the German Aerospace Center, proves that the cost of converting to 100% renewable energy worldwide by 2050 (about $1 trillion) is more than offset by the savings from converting away from fossil fuels ($1.07 trillion). Is that bad for business? It is bad for a few businesses: coal, natural gas and petroleum. It is great for many other business: solar, wind, geothermal, etc. In fact, in the U.S. today there are already twice as many solar workers as coal workers — and growing — providing a rising area of job growth in America. In 2015 there was more than twice as much global investment in renewable energy sources ($265.8 billion) than in new coal and oil sources ($130 billion) (UNEP). Sounds like the free market is already doing its thing.

Civil and Environmental Engineering Professor Mark Z. Jacobson (Stanford University) has famously outlined plans to take all 50 of the United States to 100% renewable energy by 2050, as well as 139 countries around the world (check out his The Solution’s Project website for more info). He corroborates Greenpeace’s economic findings and states that barriers to achieving 100% renewable energy are not economic but rather social and political. Jacobson’s plan is a huge boon for the economy, creating a net gain of 20 million jobs globally and reducing overall costs of energy generation (particularly due to the elimination of expensive environmental damage from fossil fuels) (EcoWatch).

Economic advantages of renewables stem from affordable access to energy, industry development, job creation, energy price stabilization, increased efficiency, increased security, improved human health and technological innovation. Need more proof? Check out this causality study done by the Australian Department of Economics and Property, which proves that in the 80 countries studied there was a clear interdependence between renewable energy consumption and economic growth — renewable energy is important for economic growth, and likewise economic growth encourages the use of more renewable energy. The Union of Concerned Scientists published this list of economic, health and environmental benefits of switching to renewable energy with a great reference list for more economic information.

Conclusions

In the past year, the anti-environment movement has been busy, prioritizing the blockage and/or reversal of all environmental policy from the last 40 years, including the following efforts:

  • This list of anti-environment riders attached to the Budgetary Spending Bill for the fiscal year 2016, despite the fact that none were related to budgetary spending.
  • This list of bills designed to delay all future environmental legislation by “attacking science”, (specifically, denying the use of many current avenues of scientific data collection used for proposing new environmental laws, despite the ability to challenge that data in court already).
  • This list of attacks on the Clean Water Act, the Clean Air Act in order to block the protection of smaller drinking water sources and the crack down on coal industry emissions, and on the 1906 Antiquities Act (the bill Theodore Roosevelt used to protect the Grand Canyon) to block future presidents from being able to protect at-risk landscapes as national monuments.
  • These two measures to undercut President Obama’s pledge at the Paris climate change talks to cut climate emissions.

Despite the anti-environment movement in America, environmentalism is a bipartisan issue addressed by conservative parties around the world and has also been embraced historically and enthusiastically by the Republican party. Current anti-environmental policy is based on some falsities and is highly skewed toward profiteering for certain big fossil fuel businesses. On the other hand, as many Republicans know, environmentalism fits with some of the basic tenants of the Republican party platform — providing economic benefits and a boost to the economy, creating opportunity for a free market approach to innovation and climate solutions and touting conservation.

A new (greener) era is dawning in the Republican party, one led by courageous leaders like former governor of New York George Pataki and senators Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), who all acknowledge climate change and back climate action. If you are a Republican, you too have a choice about environmental stewardship, and you don’t have to become a Democrat just to support climate action. You can join the growing tide of green-minded Republicans in acknowledging the climate problem and backing climate policy. You can be an environmentalist too.

Featured website of the day: Conservative Republican businessman, Jay Faison of North Carolina, has pledged $175 million of his own money toward creating ClearPath, a non-profit foundation aimed at promoting climate change initiatives that appeal specifically to Republicans in order to draw more Republicans to the cause of necessary climate action (Politico).

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