FLORIDA, January 5, 2013 — These days, conservatism isn’t often viewed as friendly to the environment.
Most opposition to green public policy measures comes from within the ranks of the GOP. Nonetheless, there are some Republicans who are pushing for a more eco-friendly friendly future.
Rob Sisson is one. He is the president of ConservAmerica, an organization devoted to promoting sustainability from a conservative perspective.
In this first part of our discussion, he shares his views about why finding consensus on what is best for the environment is is the source of so much partisan friction, why so many Republican politicians deny that human actions have a real impact on long-term environmental stability, and how conservationist Republicans might lead the way in reducing America’s dependency on foreign oil.
Joseph F. Cotto: This is surely one of the most polarized eras in American politics, especially as far as environmental issues are concerned. Not so long ago, finding consensus on what was best for the environment didn’t produce so much partisan division. Why do you believe that the times have changed?
Rob Sisson: The great success we experienced as a nation was strong environmental accomplishments. By the early 1990’s, rivers catching on fire and soot darkened skies were a thing of the past. Americans became content by the visible success and improvement in our air and water. Republican strategists began to formulate a message to drive a wedge into the electorate. That was, painting pro-environment positions as extreme and out of the mainstream. It worked, especially with the conservative base. With the more recent tea party movement, environmental protection is painted as infringement on liberty. Without clean air, clean water, and a healthy climate, there cannot be liberty.
Cotto: Global warming is a highly contentious subject. Many Republican politicians claim that human actions have no real impact on the environment’s long term stability. What is your opinion about this?
Sisson: I’ve personally spoken with many members of Congress, Hill staffers, and Republican policy advisors. By and large, they do understand the problem and the urgent need to devise good public policy in regard to climate. With the tea party movement and rise of right wing cable television and radio, they are between a rock and a hard spot. If elected officials even discuss climate, the right wing disinformation machine attacks them. They are likely to attract a primary challenge with a high probability of losing to someone with extreme views. The key is to make it safe for everyone to freely discuss the issue and possible solutions.
Cotto: Many conservationist Republicans believe that looking after the environment should be considered a bedrock value of conservatism. How do you think that pro-environment policies can make a comeback within the GOP?
Sisson: As the great conservative philosopher Russell Kirk said, “Nothing is more conservative than conservation.” It is a bedrock value of traditional conservatism. Talk radio hosts have hijacked the definition of what it means to be conservative, and their echo chamber has drilled that into a significant segment of the electorate. Yes, I absolutely believe that conservation will once again become a major plank in the Republican and conservative platforms. This will be driven by two factors.
First, we are witnessing an awakening in the vast faith community. Conservative voters of faith are beginning to make the connection between conservation and their pro-life values. Creation care is top priority, especially among younger Christians. Second, conservation, almost by definition, saves money. ConservAmerica works to connect the dots for policymakers on how specific conservation measures often save tax dollars.
Cotto: How might conservationist Republicans lead the way in reducing America’s dependency on foreign oil?
Sisson: Our transportation sector is the primary consumer of oil. Assuming we want to burn less oil and petroleum products to lower carbon emissions, we need to focus on how to lower demand. Powering our transportation fleet with electricity and natural gas are obvious avenues. The quickest way, though, is to make our vehicles go farther on a gallon of gasoline or diesel fuel.
Cotto: Protecting forests and waterways is key to our national future. Can this be accomplished through center-right public policy?
Sisson: Absolutely. Conservation of public lands and waters enjoys broad bi-partisan support. This issue enjoys very strong grassroots support with a coalition that includes progressive environmentalists, the tourism industry, sportsmen, ranchers, and faith-based voters. Conserving land and water is one of the safest votes a member of Congress will ever cast.
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