The notion that progressives cherish the environment while conservatives care only about exploiting it for profit has taken hold of the American political dynamic so forcefully that it’s hard to remember a time it wasn’t so.
But it wasn’t.
The original conservationists were, as you might expect from the name, conservatives. Teddy Roosevelt established the national park system, an unparalleled treasure that set a world standard. He was also of course an avid hunter, and hunters for generations, including today, where they are reviled by most liberals, have taken a primary role in preserving the ecosystems that sustain their hobby.
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The average MAGA hat wearer with a buck’s head on his wall has done a hell of a lot more to preserve the lives of deer through his hunting fees and economic activity than any member of PETA.
To understand how we got here, it helps to look back just about 40 years.
In 1979, amid the oil embargo, America got its first taste of what it will feel like when we can no longer count on a limitless supply of fossil fuels. Jimmy Carter responded to the political pressure of soaring costs and gas lines with his famous sweater speech, advising Americans to consume less energy, put on a sweater and accept what many felt – most obviously because he lost in a landslide in 1980 just six years after the resignation of a scandalized Republican president, and almost lost a Democratic primary to Ted Kennedy— was a new era of American weakness. But Carter also installed solar panels on the White House. When Ronald Reagan won, he deinstalled those solar panels, another symbolic gesture that the old ways of fueling our cars and warming our homes were plenty good enough, and we were not going to let mullahs and sheiks dictate the terms of American comfort.
That sharp contrast – Carter installing solar panels, Reagan removing them—established the characters that have endured for four decades.
It doesn’t have to be that way. Conservatives care about the environment. But even those who care about it only for electoral success should want to understand that they can win votes and influence the debate in ways that mitigate the excesses of woke fundamentalists.
According to a poll commissioned by the American Conservation Coalition, a group founded to provide a home for young conservative environmentalists, voters are more likely to support candidates who support “immediate action on climate” by a 2 to 1 ratio. Among voters under 30, the ratio is 4 to 1. Democrats held an 11-point advantage over Republicans when respondents are asked, “Which party do you trust more to address climate change?”
Karly Matthews, Communications Director for American Conservation Coalition, told the California Globe, “Conservatives have this conservation ethos and care deeply about our natural environment and want to preserve it for future generations. But the shift of the environmental conversation to being all about climate change has really politicized those ideas, so a lot of conservatives are not as comfortable engaging on those issues as they were when conservation was the main point.”
Electeds are starting to get it
One elected Republican has taken a leading role in wrenching the conversation back from progressives.
Congressman John Curtis (UT-03) was just appointed Vice Chair of the Subcommittee on Energy, Climate, and Grid Security. He is the founder of the Conservative Climate Caucus in Washington, which has quietly assembled a membership numbering over 75 House Republicans. He has used his long record of public advocacy to push back on the notion that only Democrats care about the environment.
“Republicans care deeply about this Earth,” Rep. Curtis told the Globe this week. “I do not know anyone that does not want to leave this world better for their children and their children’s children. It is important to talk about many of the wins we have in the climate and energy space. That includes the Energy Act of 2020 or entering the UNFCCC under President Bush. These were large initiatives, but yet we only talk about what we do not like. Things like the Green New Deal. So we should talk about what we do like and what we are focused on: permitting reform, next generation nuclear, carbon sequestration, hydrogen, and more. We should attack emissions, not energy sources.”
These suggestions seem to be borne out by data. A poll conducted by Frank Luntz on behalf of ACC found that young Republicans (aged 18-29) consider nuclear energy the second best option among a list of climate solutions (“renewables” are number one). That open-mindedness underlines the “yes, and” approach Curtis advocates.
Luntz, who conducted the poll, told the California Globe that environmentalism ought to be fundamental to the conservative identity. “Republicans pride themselves in the loyalty to the Constitution. You cannot have life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness without having clean air, safe water, and a healthy environment.” He’s referring to the epic line in the Declaration of Independence, not the Constitution, but you get the point—conservatives go way back with this stuff.
Curtis also says conservatives must abandon the “who knows how we got here” shrug that has allowed them to be painted as anti-science for too long.
Denialism is a non-starter
At a forum in Utah last May, he told the audience, ““I say to my friends on the left, ‘Stop asking the question about climate.’ And I say to my friends on the right, ‘Start answering it, it’s not that hard.’ You have no credibility if you say the climate is not changing and man has had no influence on it. … Is it possible that decades and decades and decades of the Industrial Revolution have had some impact on the climate? Yes. OK, you’re there. We’ve got to start answering the question as conservatives.”
Pollster Adam Geller, the president of National Research, has polled for President Donald Trump, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie and many other Republicans. He agrees that the GOP has an opening here. He told California Globe, “Republicans are missing a common sense ‘clean environment’ platform. The Democrats’ overreach is so extreme and expensive and job-killing that beyond opposing that, the GOP has not (but should) come up with their own policy initiatives for environmental protection.”
Matthews agrees: “Elected Republicans are leaving some of the youth vote on the table by not engaging in this conversation,” she told the Globe.
Some are trying. Rep. Curtis outlined his plan in concrete terms.
“Go to 30,000 feet for just a minute, and then come down in,” Curtis told the California Globe. “We’re here primarily because over the years, the extreme environmentalists have taken over the conversation. I call my constituents environmentalists, even those who work in the fossil fuel industry because they really are. They might not like to be called that, but I think they all are environmentalists. They care about this Earth and want to be good stewards.”
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