Conservatives need to do a better job on the environment. That seems like a controversial thing to say, because usually when you hear a conservative speak positively about an issue closely identified with liberalism, it is the precursor to a sellout of conservative principles. How many times have you read an essay claiming to make “the conservative case” for some profoundly anti-conservative project like voting for Hillary Clinton or government-run healthcare?
This, I can assure you, is not that.
Rather, it’s a recognition that the Green Left owns the environment as an issue and it shouldn’t. Protecting our natural environment and promoting its vitality is a natural conservative issue. And it’s one that we ignored at our peril. We must do better.
The environment is such an important issue for Democrats that they devoted an entire presidential debate to the subject. Republicans usually just try to duck the issue and, in so doing, dodge a legitimate responsibility and lose voters who might otherwise listen to them. The Right’s environmental politics should be more than a simple negation of whatever the Greens say. That’s insufficient and it’s lazy. It’s also a political loser that cedes all of the initiative to the fanatics. Stewardship of nature is a real and serious responsibility—one far too important to be left to the likes of Al Gore, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and Mother Jones.
We’ve avoided making the environment a political priority for decades and the country is worse for it. The prevailing sentiment among conservatives on environmental policy has been to ignore it, mock the hippies and tree-huggers, laugh at the earth mothers with their Birkenstocks and Gaia bumper stickers, and carry on.
Besides, conservatives tell themselves, we’re for business and industry and for pumping more oil. There is truth in this, of course, but it’s a caricature created by the Left that conservatives have allowed to define their identity. Besides, it’s not an either-or proposition. We can—and should be—in favor of economic prosperity and preserving the natural world.
Conservatives should embrace this issue and stop letting the climate-change debate define everything about environmental policy.
The Greens have created a dialectic in which it is either oil or the environment, either economic growth or the environment, either mankind or the earth. Conservatives made the fatal error of accepting these false premises. It’s not even that we lose on this issue, we’ve just given it to the other side.
Yet everyone knows that protection of nature is a self-evident, commonsense good. We don’t need apocalyptic prophecies to support policies that promote a healthy environment. Yet, those prophecies have paralyzed the Right and in a great example of the psychological concept of projection, conservatives consistently have played to the stereotypes created by the Left. Think Mr. Burns, the nuclear power plant owner on “The Simpsons” who once said, “Nature started the fight for survival and now she wants to quit because she’s losing? Well, I say, hard cheese!” It’s a funny caricature of the corner into which conservatives have let themselves be painted.
The Left Shares the Blame
But lest we go too hard on conservatives, let’s acknowledge that it’s not only conservatives who have some answering to do. The Green Left’s insistence upon faithful adherence to the entire, and rapidly growing, catechism of climate-change orthodoxy has become an impediment to good environmental policy, too.
Climate change fundamentalists too often would rather force acceptance of their dogma than enact good policy, even policy they otherwise would support, if enacting it means working with “climate skeptics.”
Climate-change fundamentalists should, perhaps, behave with more humility given the history of Green prophecies of imminent destruction and tipping points that never seem to materialize when they’re predicted.
The best known of these is probably Al Gore’s prediction in his 2006 movie, “An Inconvenient Truth,” that we had just 10 years left to act before we reached a “tipping point” beyond which the earth’s environment would be permanently, irretrievably damaged and which would set us on a course to extinction. That was 13 years ago.
At a climate conference in Budapest in February 2009, Stavros Dimas, the European Union’s environment commissioner at the time, said that year’s global climate summit in Copenhagen would be “the world’s last chance to stop climate change before it passes the point of no return.”
He wasn’t alone in his stark predictions. A month later, Prince Charles told an audience in Brazil, “If we can redouble our efforts to unite the world in meeting perhaps its greatest and most critical challenge, then we may yet be able to prevail and thereby to avoid bequeathing a poisoned chalice to our children and grandchildren. But we only have 100 months to act.” That was about 126 months ago.
And just this July, Senator Bernie Sanders (D-Vt.) and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) floated a climate change resolution in Congress citing “catastrophic, irreversible changes public health, livelihoods, quality of life, food security, water, water supplies, human security, and economic growth.” Gosh. It doesn’t get any worse than that.
So who are we supposed to believe? The Al Gore of 2006 or Sanders and Ocasio-Cortez now? Regardless of how you answer that, some better questions for conservatives are these: what is good environmental policy? How can we be good stewards of nature and what can we do to promote a better environment that improves our quality of life?
There’s More to the Environment than “Climate Change”
Conservatives should embrace this issue. It’s a chance to do good and to do well. The point is to stop letting the climate-change debate define everything about environmental policy and instead just pursue policies that are good for the environment. Here are a few ideas.
Reducing urban heat islands through reforestation: Cities, because of their physical nature and structure, retain heat. During the day the sun shines and, in the process, the cement and asphalt central to the construction of roads and buildings heat up. At night cities retain more heat than other areas and only slowly cool.
Alyson Kenward, a senior scientist at Climate Central, explained, “Urban heat islands have hotter days, far hotter nights, and more extremely hot days each summer than adjacent rural areas.” Las Vegas is the worst with a difference of 7.3 degrees between the city and its adjacent rural areas. But there are big differences in temperature even in cool climates like Portland (4.8 degrees), Columbus (4.4 degrees), and Minneapolis (4.3 degrees).
Contributing to these temperature differences is urban deforestation. A U.S. Forest Service study estimates the United States loses around 36 million urban trees per year. This magnifies the heat island effect. It also makes areas impacted not just less comfortable and less attractive for their citizens—and focusing on what makes life good for citizens is supposed to be what our politics is about.
The same study explains, “Urban forests provide many beneﬁts to society, including moderating climate, reducing building energy use and atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2), improving air and water quality, mitigating rainfall runoﬀ and ﬂooding, enhancing human health and social well-being and lowering noise impacts.” They also remove air pollution and reduce cooling costs.
We shouldn’t be afraid to say what everyone already knows is true: tree-lined streets, yards, and parks are beautiful. So why not pursue a policy of urban reforestation? It could, perhaps, be done as part of a federal infrastructure program, but this is a place where cities and states should take the lead. The chestnut trees that line the Champs-Elysees in Paris were planted in the mid-19th century and since then have become one of the city’s distinctive features. Making America beautiful is part of making America great.
Eliminating plastic in the ocean: This should be a no-brainer. There are two massive garbage patches in the Pacific Ocean (one in the eastern Pacific and one in the western) composed largely of non-biodegradable plastic. The one in the eastern Pacific is the size of Texas. The plastic blocks sunlight from reaching the plankton and algae which form the basis of the food pyramid for sea life below the surface.
At the same time, all kinds of marine life, from fish to sea turtles to birds are consuming plastic. In some cases it kills them. But when it doesn’t kill the sea life, then humans can find themselves eating fish that have been eating plastic.
Both scenarios are bad and it does conservatives no good to adopt an attitude of callous indifference simply because every environmental cause for the past 50 years has been associated with tree-hugging hippies and they’re supposed to be on the other team.
The added geopolitical bonus here is that China is the world’s biggest culprit. The Chinese dump more than 3.5 million metric tons of plastic into the ocean, more than the next four worst offenders combined and 35 times the output of the United States.
Devising a reliable method of cleaning up the plastic in the ocean is a problem that no one has solved yet, but just as we can reduce our own plastic waste, the United States should also name and shame the worst offenders, beginning with Beijing.
Moving away from bisphenol A (BPA): BPA is commonly found in plastic food and drink packaging and also in many cans used for food. The trouble is, BPA is an endocrine disruptor and a number of studies show that BPA significantly lowers testosterone in males and there is some evidence that it operates inversely and increases testosterone in females.
There are a number of other issues around which conservatives could build a positive environmental agenda that would be popular and genuinely would improve the environment making our nation better and improve the lives of our people. I’d suggest a program that expands and rejuvenates our state and national parks and private initiatives that create and expand youth organizations that get kids out into nature and teach them to understand and appreciate the natural world as well as independence and self-reliance.
These ideas are a start. But first, conservatives have to stop being afraid of the issue and realize that they don’t have to accept the Green’s climate creed in order to believe that the preservation and appreciation of the natural world is an inherently conservative issue—and a political winner, too.