Conservatives and Environmental Policy: A Never-Ending Debate

Kate Fraser - Teen Aspect - October 12th, 2022
(Layzer’s Open for Business, 2014)

With many countries beginning to make their marks on the global stage in the fight against the impacts of climate change, many eyes look to America, anxiously waiting for action from one of the top emitters and polluters.

Despite our already poor position in the climate crisis, the United States has been notoriously stagnant in terms of climate legislation. This can be attributed to the split Senate and certain Democratic leaders being especially critical of momentous legislation, including Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona. With many environmental activists expressing disdain for these Democratic leaders today, the political discourse around the environment often strays away from the most obvious fact about American environmental policy: it’s never supported by conservatives.

Well, this hasn’t always been true. At the turn of the twentieth century, Republican leaders were some of the strongest supporters of environmental policy. Teddy Roosevelt went down in history as one of the biggest environmental heroes with his love of the natural beauty of North America. President Richard Nixon, another Republican President created the Environmental Protection Agency through an executive order, founding the leading body of environmental protection for the nation.

So, where did Republican support go south?

Judith Layzer, an associate professor in environmental policy at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, explains that conservative opposition to environmental protection can be attributed to the party’s anti-regulatory sentiment fostered by the influence of a “conservative coalition determined to free business of regulatory constraints.” [i] Born in the 1970s, according to Layzer’s book Open for Business, the coalition really picked up influence in the Republican party years later when environmental legislation began to increase in frequency and discussion. A part of this was the Sagebrush rebellion, made up of miners, ranchers, and large property owners in Western states who felt targeted by the new environmental restrictions of the time.

Because modern environmental progress requires federal involvement and enforcement, conservatism and modern environmentalism simply do not mix. Conservatives are fundamentally opposed to federal regulation, making them believe that not every ecological concern requires a new federal program or piece of legislation.

Meanwhile, several think tanks in the 70s and 80s began to create hostile conservative rhetoric toward the climate issue, all the while conservative presidents, such as Reagan began taking cracks at the Environmental Protection Agency.

The simultaneous rise of the environmental justice movement, led by Black activists, surprisingly greatly benefitted the Republican party. Specifically, environmental causes became intertwined in Georgia politics, with Republican opposition proving to be relatively effective in electoral support. This was fortified by Republican gerrymandering, making many districts whiter, lowering the volume on the minority-led environmental justice movement that was harbored in the state of Georgia. [ii]

In 1994, Republicans took over Congress, leading their anti-regulatory rhetoric with Georgia Representative Newt Gingrich’s Contract with America, a legislative agenda that called for a restraint on regulation, strategically avoiding any discussion of the environment. This subsequently restricted the EPA’s power. This agenda continues to serve as a model for modern Republicans.

Former President Donald Trump serves as the most recent example of a notorious anti-environmental-policy hero. The Trump Administration managed to roll back over 100 environmental rules, killing the progress made by the previous Obama Administration. [iii] Trump also formally pulled the United States out of the Paris Climate Agreement, a crucial pact in the world’s effort to not move past 1.5 degrees Celsius of a temperature increase.

President Trump also quickly became one of the most dangerous climate disinformation spreaders in American politics. The President visited California fire officials in 2020 following a series of worsening wildfires. A clip of the conversation went viral after California Natural Resources Agency Secretary Wade Crowfoot emphasized the importance of recognizing the science behind the changing climate and Trump responded with, “It will start getting cooler. You just watch.”

Another example of dangerous climate misinformation that comes to mind is Georgia Republican Representative Marjorie Taylor Green claiming that global warming and carbon are healthy for us. [iv]

Because of the deep anti-regulatory sentiment that runs through the Republican party, there is a scary future for American environmental policy. As of now, the only thing that can push us in the right direction is the American people voting for strong Democratic candidates that understand the importance of urgent climate action before our impacts are irreversible. With midterm elections around the corner, it is the American people who can change the tide for climate policy.


References

[1] Layzer, J. A. (2012). Open for business conservatives' opposition to environmental regulation. MIT Press.

[2] Sellers, C. (2017, April 22). How Republicans came to embrace anti-environmentalism. Vox.com. Retrieved August 12, 2022, from https://www.vox.com/2017/4/22/15377964/republicans-environmentalism

[3] Popovich, N., Albeck-ripka, L., & Pierre-louis, K. (2020, October 16). The Trump administration rolled back more than 100 environmental rules. here's the full list. The New York Times. Retrieved August 12, 2022, from https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/climate/trump-environment-rollbacks-list.html

[4] Kaonga, G. (2022, June 14). Marjorie Taylor Greene suggests Global Warming 'is actually healthy for us'. Newsweek. Retrieved August 12, 2022, from https://www.newsweek.com/marjorie-taylor-greene-climate-change-global-warming-safety-health-1715688

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