Home inFocus Conservatism’s Green Roots

Conservatism’s Green Roots

David Jenkins Fall 2009

This year’s debate over climate change legislation has provided a vivid illustration of how today’s conservative political and media leaders approach environmental issues. The opposition to environmental protection efforts is almost reflexive in nature. Indeed, even before Representatives Henry Waxman (D-CA) and Ed Markey (D-MA) rolled out a draft of their cap-and-trade climate bill in March, Republican leaders and conservative talk radio hosts were attacking the anticipated effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

By the time Congress brought the climate bill to a vote June, these critics—warning of impending doom—had demonized the concept of cap and trade, renaming it “cap- and-tax.” A small but vocal segment of the public, seeking to voice their adamant opposition, jammed up the phone lines and inboxes of congressional offices.

A Conservative Pedigree

Opponents of Waxman-Markey (The 2009 American Clean Energy and Security Act) are often shocked to learn that cap-and-trade has a conservative pedigree that can be traced back to the Ronald Reagan White House. While serving as counsel for Vice President George H.W. Bush, C. Boyden Gray became enamored with the idea of emissions trading as a market-friendly alternative to the “command and control” pollution reduction approach typically favored by bureaucrats.

The Bush Administration then pushed cap-and-trade in 1990 as a novel and market-friendly way to reduce the sulfur dioxide emissions responsible for acid rain. The plan was part of the Clean Air Act amendments that Congress passed that year, subsequently signed into law by President Bush. Cap-and-trade was a great success, encouraging companies to reduce emissions faster and at a much lower cost than had been anticipated.

Partisan Shift

How, then, did cap and trade go from being a more conservative, market-friendly method of addressing pollution, to a “liberal scheme” that will wreck our economy?

Partisan politics certainly plays a role. This time, Democrats are pushing cap-and-trade, so Republicans are more likely to oppose it, particularly as they seek opportunities to criticize the Democrats’ agenda.

More importantly, conservative opposition to cap-and-trade—as well as other suggested environmental solutions—reflects a fundamental change in the American conservative movement over the past 20 years. This change underscores a troubling shift away from many longstanding conservative principles.

Conservatism in America has historically been a blend of traditionalist conservatism—which is primarily concerned with the health of our society, emphasizing responsibility as the corollary of freedom—and free market Libertarianism, which stresses individual liberty above all else.

These two schools of thought, when properly balanced, can help keep each other in check. But over the past two decades, free-market libertarianism has dominated the ideas of the conservative movement. In the process, it has nudged out many of the traditionalist influences that promote environmental stewardship.

Reagan Environmentalism

The timing of this shift appears to track closely with the end of the Ronald Reagan administration. In the decade that followed, libertarian-minded and property rights-focused lawmakers who generally held a dim view of environmental laws and federal public land ownership gained greater influence. This resulted in a strong push to weaken the landmark environmental laws that were enacted in the 1970s with strong bi-partisan support.

There is a common perception that the Reagan Administration marked a conservative shift away from environmental protection. While it is true that some officials within the Reagan Administration were vocal critics of environmental regulation, Reagan himself was very much influenced by traditionalist conservatism and was more stewardship-minded than those on either the right or the left give him credit for.

One example of this is directly applicable to the current climate debate. In 1984, researchers confirmed the hypothesis that chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) used in aerosol sprays and refrigeration equipment were depleting the earth’s protective ozone layer. They concluded that without a dramatic shift away from CFCs, life on earth would be exposed to ever-increasing levels of dangerous ultraviolet radiation emitted by the sun.

Those findings met with much the same kind of skepticism and resistance that scientific conclusions about climate change face today. Reagan, however, listened carefully to the experts, weighed the facts, ignored the scoffing of skeptics (including those from within his administration), and took prudent action to safeguard our atmosphere. Indeed, it was Reagan who pushed through the 1987 treaty to begin phasing out ozone-depleting chemicals.

That treaty, the Montreal Protocol, is widely regarded as the most successful environmental treaty of all time. Richard Benedick, the United States’ chief negotiator for the treaty, points out that Reagan was the world’s first head of state to personally approve a national negotiating policy on ozone protection, and that the “president completely endorsed, point-by-point, the strong position of the State Department and EPA,” demanding significant near-term reductions.

Today our ozone layer is healing, not because of Al Gore’s hype, but because of Ronald Reagan’s leadership.

Reagan had other environmental accomplishments, which included signing nearly 40 bills into law that added 10.6 million acres to the National Wilderness Preservation System.

In his 1984 remarks at the dedication of the new National Geographic Society headquarters building, Reagan summed up the traditionalist view regarding environmental stewardship:

“What is a conservative after all but one who conserves, one who is committed to protecting and holding close the things by which we live… And we want to protect and conserve the land on which we liveour countryside, our rivers and mountains, our plains and meadows and forests. This is our patrimony. This is what we leave to our children. And our great moral responsibility is to leave it to them either as we found it or better than we found it.”

A History of Stewardship

Apart from Reagan, conservatism has a very green history. President Gerald Ford signed our nation’s first automobile fuel economy standards into law. Richard Nixon created the Environmental Protection Agency and signed into law such landmark measures as the Clean Air Act, the Endangered Species Act, and the National Environmental Policy Act.

Congressman John Saylor, a staunch conservative from western Pennsylvania who served in Congress for a quarter century until he died in office in the early 1970s, was a dedicated wilderness and river advocate. He co-sponsored and was instrumental in the passage of the 1964 Wilderness Act and the 1968 Wild and Scenic Rivers Act.

Dwight Eisenhower set aside the 8.9 million-acre Arctic National Wildlife Range for protection. Herbert Hoover increased our national park system by 40 percent. And Theodore Roosevelt doubled the number of national parks, established 130 million acres of national forests, 18 national monuments, and 55 bird and game reservations.

A Founding Principle

The notion of stewardship is central to conservatism. Without a strong stewardship ethic—and the forward-thinking outlook it requires—the logic behind many conservative ideas falls short.

Edmund Burke, the 18th century British statesman who is widely regarded as the father of modern conservatism, viewed society and man’s responsibility to it as intergenerational. Indeed, Burke considered society to be a partnership among past, present, and future generations. In “Reflections on the French Revolution,” he wrote that society’s current “temporary possessors” have no right to “commit waste” on the inheritance of those who come after them.

Russell Kirk, a devotee of Burke and noted conservative author whom Reagan called “the prophet of American conservatism,” welcomed the environmental movement in post-World War II America. In a 1970 Baltimore Sun article, he wrote “nothing is more conservative than conservation.” He recognized the inherent connection between freedom and responsibility, writing “Every right is married to a duty; every freedom owes a corresponding responsibility.”

In The Conservative Mind, Kirk further noted that responsible stewardship is a predictable casualty of unrestrained material appetites. He writes that absent restraint, men will “…destroy in their lust for enjoyment the property of future generations, of their own contemporaries, and indeed their very own capital.”

In case there is any doubt that he was referring to environmental stewardship, he added: “The modern spectacle of vanished forests and eroded lands, wasted petroleum and ruthless mining… is evidence of what an age without veneration does to itself and its successors.”

Richard Weaver, another revered 20th century conservative and champion of the property rights movement, emphasized restraint in our dealings with nature. In 1948, he wrote a book titled Ideas Have Consequences, in which he asserted:

“Somehow the notion has been loosed that nature is hostile to man or that her ways are offensive or slovenly, so that every step of progress is measured by how far we have altered these. Nothing short of a recovery of the ancient virtue of pietas can absolve man from this sin.”

Weaver also advised that “man has a duty of veneration toward nature and the natural,” adding that “man is not the lord of creation, with an omnipotent will, but a part of creation, with limitations, who ought to observe a decent humility in the face of the inscrutable.”

Today’s Conservatives

The problem now is that many of today’s conservatives can’t see the forest for the trees. They have forgotten this great legacy and the essential role that stewardship plays in conservative thought. Instead of learning from the intellectual founders of the movement, the pundits of today are content to cherry-pick a few conservative ideas, toss in a hodge-podge of policy positions, and label it conservatism. In doing so, they have muddled the very essence of conservatism, stripped out its forward-thinking elements, and made it less effective and coherent as a philosophy of governance.

Were Burke, Kirk, and Weaver alive today, they would likely be appalled by the policies advanced under the conservative banner. Indeed, many of today’s policies take free market libertarian thinking to the extreme, subordinating virtually all other values to profit and personal gratification.

Ironically, the extreme of today’s conservative environmental doctrine bears a resemblance to the 1960s left-wing counterculture’s “if-it-feels-good-do-it” attitude. Only the vices are different.

The Path Forward

A majority of voters describe themselves as conservative or moderately conservative—and do not identify with the liberal label. Yet, conservative candidates have fared poorly in the last two election cycles.

Americans young and old want those they elect to be, above everything else, good and thoughtful stewards with a long-term vision that protects the interests of future generations. The conservative outlook they seek embraces resource conservation and protective environmental policies, but is understandably wary of Al Gore-style alarmism and the costly, overly bureaucratic solutions that liberals are prone to proffer.

The climate debate again provides a case in point. If liberals are the only ones presenting solutions, then liberal solutions are what we’re likely to get. By following Reagan’s lead and being constructively engaged in the effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, conservatives can not only begin to reclaim their stewardship heritage, they can better check liberal tendencies and help produce a more balanced, revenue-neutral climate bill that does not needlessly expand government.

Rediscovering conservatism’s green side is the path to reviving the popularity of conservative thought in America. This should not be hard to do. After all, this is a path that only requires embracing American conservatism’s traditionalist roots and the stewardship ethic that lies at its core.

David Jenkins is Vice President for Government and Political Affairs at Republicans for Environmental Protection (www.rep.org)