Religion and the Environment: Reconciling Apples and Oranges

Posted on June 5, 2013 by James Holtkamp

Setting policy for environmental protection is a bit like mediating the discussion between a father and daughter about her shaggy-haired boyfriend.  Each has a very different perspective – the father looks at the boyfriend with the cold eye of logic (does he have a job- will he ever get a job?) and the daughter sees her suitor as a warm and caring individual (but I love him, Daddy!).  Neither is willing (or sometimes even able) to understand the point of view of the other.

Project proponents often cite additional jobs, taxes and other material benefits in response to concerns about environmental damage from the project.  Opponents argue that the protection of environmental values is important because- well, they are just important.  Quantification of inherently unmeasurable values, such as the cost of illness or death or the extinction of an obscure species resulting from human activities, is at best a clumsy exercise, notwithstanding the legions of PhDs in economics that have tried.  Thus, comparison of the economic benefits with the environmental disbenefits of a particular project or policy is at bottom an unsatisfying exercise because neither side is willing or able to speak the “language” of the other.  This has been especially true in the conversations about climate change, and given the staggering implications of climate change for human society and the environment, those conversations need to be mutually understandable.

So, what common “language” can mediate conflicting world views on environmental issues?  Religion is increasingly serving as a framework for mutual understanding and communication to facilitate resolution of environmental issues.  The debate over man’s impact on the earth under this approach is cast in terms of the sanctity of all creation coupled with a divine mandate for mankind to care for it. 

The notion that human beings have an innate, solemn and God-given responsibility to care for each other and the world they live in is expressed in all of the great religious traditions. For example, in Genesis, God sees that his creation was “very good” and gives man “dominion” over it. (Genesis 1:26, 28, 31).  The Koran commands, “Do no mischief on the earth, after it has been set in order.” (7:56).  Indeed, there are some who suggest that environmentalism is itself a religion insofar as it “shapes a person’s very concept of his or her purpose and meaning in the world and other core beliefs relating to human existence.” 

Can a religion-based ethos of stewardship over creation and care for one’s neighbor solve environmental conflicts?  It can certainly help restore the words “balanced” and “responsibility” to their normal meanings.   It can provide a framework for talking about economic, health and lifestyle benefits to individual human beings, as well as protection of vulnerable ecosystems and esthetic values, based on something other than blind adherence to the laws of economics on the one hand and reflexive opposition on the other.

Republican Environmentalism: An Oxymoron?

Posted on January 17, 2012 by E. Donald Elliott

Our dramatic progress in environmental policy from 1970 to 1992 resulted from a healthy competition between the two political parties, I argue in Politics Failed, Not Ideas. Competition between Republicans and Democrats gave us the Clean Air and Water Acts, the Acid Rain Trading program, and the 1992 Rio Treaties on Climate Change, Biodiversity and Sustainable Development.  With Mitt Romney’s victory in the New Hampshire primary, it is time to ask whether this healthy competition over environmental issues will ever return, or whether the concept of  “Republican Environmentalism” is an anachronism, if not an oxymoron.   

A new renaissance of Republican environmentalism may be just around the corner, according to Joe Klein.  In his December Time Magazine article, Why Don't They Like Me, Klein argues that both Romney and Gingrich are “empowerment Republicans” of the 1990’s, who don’t really oppose progressive goals so much as they maintain that they can accomplish them in a better way. A lot of this is damning with faint praise by a partisan who is trying to de-legitimate Romney with voters by creating a perception that he lacks character and flips-flops on issues.  But at least on the environment, there is a core of truth to the point.  After all, occasional claims to the contrary notwithstanding, most Republicans don’t actually want to poison our children and befoul our air and water.  Republican objections to federal environmental initiatives in recent years have had more to do with means than ends.

Republicans generally oppose big government and centralized planning of the economy.  But the press has come to define “strong” environmental policies in terms of the level of federal government coercion rather than the amount of progress made toward meeting environmental goals.  For example, the George W. Bush Administration made some progress in reducing emissions of some Greenhouse Gases (GHGs) through the Methane to Markets program (which in fairness, it inherited from the Clinton Administration).  This successful program worked co-operatively with companies to plug leaks of methane from pipelines – a classic win-win for the environment and the economy – and has now gone global under Obama. However, repeatedly we were told that the Bush Administration was “doing nothing” about GHGs because they were opposed to a federal cap-and-trade program for CO2.

A second basic difference between Republicans and Democrats on the environment is that Republicans generally need to be shown credible proof that environmental regulation will produce benefits several times greater than its costs.  Most Democrats, on the other hand, already “know” in their hearts that environmental programs are good without needing to be convinced by data.  Then Chair of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, California Democrat Barbara Boxer, once exclaimed in frustration at a scientific witness during a hearing: “Doctor, I may not know the facts, but I know what’s right!”   On the other hand, Bush Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs Administrator John Graham was able to get tough environmental regulations such as the off-road diesel rule or the first tightening of CAFE standards in a generation through a skeptical White House when he could show the doubters that regulation would produce health benefits several times greater than their cost.  For further discussion on this issue click here.

Republicans and Democrats do look at environmental policies differently, just as they look at what creates true international security or the government’s proper role in energy policy differently.  But if a Republican ends up in the White House on January 21, 2013, we could begin to make progress on the environment again if we focused on the areas where we can find common ground rather than wedge issues that make people on both sides feel morally superior but don’t get things done.


Posted on February 24, 2009 by Elliot Laws

As Lisa Jackson completes her first month as President Obama’s environmental chief, she is just scratching the surface on some of the myriad issues that will likely have impacts far beyond typical environmental concerns, for decades to come. There has to be some mixture of excitement and fear facing this new administration, as the challenges before it dwarf all of those in memory. That mixture will be especially prevalent at EPA. Usually in times like these — war, recession, high unemployment –— environmental issues can be expected to fade from the front pages. An EPA administrator would receive the old admonition to be seen and not heard. However, unlike past crises environmental issues are in the forefront — primarily in the form of climate change and energy. It is notable that when the government is lending billions of dollars to Citibank and debating the very existence of the big three automakers, one of the first actions of the incoming Obama administration has been to review EPA’s previous decision to deny California’s petition for a Clean Air Act waiver to allow it to regulate greenhouse gases from mobile sources.



The expectations for success that many Obama supporters have are high. Those expectations are high in the environmental community — perhaps too high. The ongoing financial collapse in the United States and abroad has changed the landscape in ways that could not have been imagined as recently as August, when Obama accepted the Democratic nomination for president. With the federal government having committed nearly $1 trillion in an attempt to save financial institutions across the country; with Congress passing an economic stimulus package costing an additional $750 billion; with the United States still conducting wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, outside of the infusion of stimulus cash for “shovel-ready projects” the expectation that EPA’s budget will experience significant increases over the Bush years is hardly a reasoned view. It’s not just the mind boggling challenge facing us on the economy, it’s also the difficult decisions that must be made to address climate change; it’s the need to seriously address the nation’s nearly suicidal dependence on foreign oil; and it’s myriad other issues that will all require hard choices and sacrifice.


Those expectations are probably low in the business community — as they normally are when the country shifts from a Republican to a Democratic administration. And similarly, those expectations are perhaps too low. I believe if this president will be true to one of his campaign promises, it is to govern in a way that puts partisanship on the sidelines. He has already proved that commitment by sending a strong signal to Senate Democrats that he does not wish to see retaliation against Senator Joe Lieberman (I-Connecticut) for his support not only of John McCain, but also Republican senatorial candidates in Minnesota, Maine, and Oregon. What Obama signaled with that position is that he is not going to put partisanship ahead of his plans to help America, even if partisans refuse his offers to join him.. He is looking at new alliances and will work with people who were not shy in their opposition to his election as he works as president. The mantra of “no permanent friends; no permanent enemies” is likely to be the Obama approach to working in Washington, DC.


We as a nation are facing an uncertain future. The environment is likely going to play a larger role in the lives of average Americans than it has since its heyday in the 1970s. Lisa Jackson has the monumental task of rallying an agency suffering from low morale, with precious few additional resources, to make decisions in perhaps the most hotly debated and controversial area of environmental law and policy ever. She will make recommendations and decisions that will have implications not only on the very future of the United States, but likely for the world as well. To the NGO community, the challenge is not to be disappointed as this president makes decisions that balance multiple important considerations and who will often decide that another consideration must trump the environmental choice. To the business community, the challenge is to be more optimistic and to show the initiative and courage necessary to work with this new administration and its traditional allies to solve the monumental problems facing the world.