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.



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