Like all things lately, environmental policies are considered highly divisive issues; environmental regulation and climate policies are overwhelmingly championed by the left, while support for fossil fuel and the coal industry continues to be a fundamental issue on the right. While these two perspectives aren’t necessarily incompatible – as long as there is a fair transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy – the underlying idea that conservatives are anti-environmental has prevailed.
Historically, though, environmental management has been a conservative value. Presidents Eisenhower, Reagan, and G.H.W. Bush all passed expansive policies to protect the environment and regulate pollution. President Eisenhower oversaw the establishment of what is now the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. President Reagan negotiated the remarkably successful Montreal Protocol, which helped stop the destruction of the ozone layer, and President George H. W. Bush signed the Rio Declaration at the 1992 Earth Summit and passed the Clean Air Act Amendment in 1990 “designed to improve our ability to control urban smog and reduce automobile and air toxic emissions, and to provide the enforcement authority necessary to make the law work,” (President George H. W. Bush, Nov 15, 1990).
Now it seems the left maintains a monopoly on environmental protection, while Republican policymakers and voters denounce or attempt to dissolve the EPA and the very policies their own party passed. These policies and the EPA were designed for two major reasons: to reduce the amount of pollution that US citizens are exposed to and to establish accountability for pollutants. Neither of these are inherently Republican or Democratic values, and the same can be said about emissions reductions.
The traditionally conservative values of free market enterprise, innovation, and accountability play a major role in the reduction of US emissions, as does the fundamental duty to protect the US population from harmful pollution. Rather than pointing the blame at market failures alone, we should also recognize that this is a failure of the US federal government; by granting some companies subsidies while imposing regulations on others in the same industry (energy, for example), the government has tipped the scales in favor of whoever has lobbyists. That is not a free market; that is overreach of the federal government.
By favoring the fossil fuel industry – for example, by granting companies enormous subsidies totaling $20 billion annually – the government has closed off the energy market, making it harder and more expensive for renewable energy companies to compete. A true free market encourages innovation and growth – without unfair subsidies and regulations, inventors and innovators in the US would have more freedom and incentive to develop smarter, more efficient technology that would allow the country to be a competitor in the global clean energy market.
And recent polls reflect conservative support for clean energy:
ClearPath released a comprehensive report in 2015 that asked registered Republican voters about clean energy. Sixty-eight to seventy-two percent of respondents supported “accelerating the development and use of clean energy…so that Americans could have cleaner healthier air and less pollution at home…so that American innovation can create economic growth and jobs at home [and] so that America is less dependent on energy for the Middle East.”
Another poll, this one conducted after the 2016 elections by Public Opinion Strategies, found that 75% of President Trump voters “support action to accelerate the deployment and use of clean energy” and the majority of conservative voters support less emphasis on coal and more emphasis on wind, solar, and hydropower. These findings mirror those in a 2016 Pew Research Center report.
There is a strong opposition to environmental regulations that would lead to bigger government, namely to collect taxes or enforce standards. However, not all environmental policies are designed in this way; the revenue-neutral carbon pricing is an emissions reduction scheme supported by Republicans and bipartisan coalitions. Designed with a bipartisan perspective, a policy like this upholds the conservative value of smaller government while also respecting individual liberties and encouraging free market innovation.
Alternatively, a regulatory law like the Clean Air Act (CAA), amended under President George H. W. Bush, can still prove to be fiscally responsible and beneficial despite the needs for enforcement and government involvement. In the case of the CAA, the estimates of monetized benefits from avoided air pollution under the amended CAA law exceed the compliance costs by a factor of 32:1. Accountability is another core tenant of conservatism: the idea that one must answer for their actions and act in a responsible way for the impacts their decisions have upon others. Pollution is an exact manifestation of environmental accountability; paying for the pollution we cause is as conservative a value as any, which is why the CAA saw such success under a Republican president.
Removing unfair subsidies, allowing the free market to facilitate free enterprise, and being accountable for our pollution fall in line with conservatives’ fundamental values. This is not an issue that belongs to the left. Some of the most influential environmental policies were championed by Republican presidents and passed through Congress with bipartisan support.
It is a mistake to define environmentalism as a left-wing value; doing so creates political partisanship over an issue that was historically shared by both parties. Environmentalists or left-leaning leaders who seek to cordon off environmental policies along ideological lines ought to reconsider; the issue historically belongs to both sides equally. And while each side has different motivations driven by different values, their ultimate goals do align; this is one of the few issues that can bring conservatives and liberals together. Isolating conservatives from the conversation will only lead to further division and resentment. Liberals and conservatives alike need to respect and champion the conservative role in environmentalism because it is, and always has been, an integral part of shaping the most effective and balanced policies.