The Decline of GOP Environmentalism or Decline of Environmentalism Itself

By Brent Fewell

Paul Sabin has an article in this weekend’s Boston Globe titled “The Decline of Republican Environmentalism.” Sabin, a professor of history at Yale and author of “The Bet: Paul Ehrlich, Julian Simon, and Our Gamble Over Earth’s Future,” makes a compelling case for the country’s current deadlock on forging solutions to important environmental matters, including climate change.  However, I think the article could aptly have been titled the “Decline of Environmentalism” or “The Failed Gamble of Environmentalism,” rather than painting the GOP into a corner.  According to Sabin,

Twenty-five years ago tomorrow, from the sunny decks of an excursion boat touring Boston Harbor, George H.W. Bush, then the Republican candidate for president, launched a fierce attack on Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis, the Democratic nominee. Bush said that Boston’s polluted waters — “the dirtiest harbor” in America — symbolized Dukakis’s failed leadership. He “will say that he will do for America what he’s done for Massachusetts,” Bush declared. “That’s why I fear for the country.” By delaying a major cleanup of the harbor, Bush said, Dukakis had cost taxpayers billions of dollars and allowed the pollution to continue, making “the most expensive public policy mistake in the history of New England.”

Bush’s attack on Dukakis stands out as perhaps the last time a prominent national Republican turned an environmental cause into a weapon against a Democratic opponent. And in that 25-year gap lies a lost path and a giant missed opportunity. Republicans no longer seriously contest the environmental vote; instead, they have run from it. Largely as a result, national environmental policy-making has become one-sided, polarized, and stuck. Republican politicians mostly deny the threat of climate disruption and block legislative solutions, while President Obama tries to go it alone with a shaky patchwork of executive actions. A middle ground on environmental policy remains a mirage.

Bush’s presidency initially promised a different path. Bush’s feelings about the environment ran long and deep. Heading a House Republican task force in 1970, he called the “interrelationship between population growth and natural resources . . . the most critical problem facing the world.” He shared the environmental movement’s goals of improving the nation’s air and water. One of Bush’s signature achievements, the Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990, instituted a cap-and-trade system to cut power plant pollution and reduce acid rain. The New York Times described the law as a “model for updating in the 1990s the other 1970s-era statutes that form the foundation of the nation’s environmental program.”

But then Bush abandoned the Republican environmental resurgence he had begun to build. By the end of his presidency, he was pitting economic growth against environmental regulation. Bush mocked 1992 vice presidential nominee Al Gore as “Ozone Man,” declaring that Gore was “so far out in the environmental extreme we’ll be up to our necks in owls and outta work for every American.”

What explains the switch? Despite significant environmental gains during his presidency, Bush’s leadership faltered as the issues grew more complex, abstract, and international. The raw sewage pouring into Boston Harbor had created a local constituency for change and a clear solution. By contrast, largely invisible and computer-modeled threats like climate change affected everyone, but far in the future. Negotiating international agreements to limit greenhouse gas emissions thus provoked fierce ideological debates over scientific knowledge, economic regulation, and national sovereignty.

Facing a conservative primary challenge and an economic downturn, Bush tacked to the right in the 1992 campaign, refusing to sign the international Convention on Biodiversity and weakening a global agreement on greenhouse gas emissions. “After those decisions,” EPA Administrator William Reilly later recalled, “it became impossible to be taken seriously when representing the environmental commitments of the Bush administration.”

Environmentalists exacerbated the Republican shift away from environmental issues by allying forcefully with the Democratic Party. Environmental groups gave Bush little credit for his accomplishments. When they denounced Bush for his failings, and allowed Democrats to claim the environmental mantle exclusively for themselves, environmentalists helped to drive both parties to the extremes. The Democrats veered toward warning of environmental apocalypse, while Republicans went to the other pole, denying the threat of environmental problems.

In Bush’s forgotten bid for environmental superiority lies a missed opportunity. The country needs constructive debate that leads to innovative approaches to environmental problems. At the time, Bush’s means, if not his ends, differed from those of many environmental advocates: Bush touted market solutions, private initiative, and informal negotiation strategies instead of costly litigation. Although Bush’s favorite strategies were often derided then, the environmental movement has increasingly embraced his approach over the past two decades. Cap-and-trade provided the centerpiece for Obama’s initial climate initiative in his first term. Green business is all the rage, and market strategies for solving environmental problems are widely accepted. Nowadays, young environmentalists are as likely to go into business as they are to pursue careers in government or advocacy.

The one place where Bush’s proposed market solutions failed to thrive was in politics. With both sides talking to themselves, the generative power of competition and debate has withered. So perhaps the first signs of new life will come when a prominent national Republican next goes after a Democrat for being weak on the environment.

Admittedly, my first reaction to this knock on the GOP was to jump on Google and see if I could discern Sabin’s politics.  Sure enough, Sabin is a party-faithful Democrat, having contributed $3,200 to President Obama and other Ds in the 2012 election cycle, without one reported contribution to a GOP candidate.  This initial instinct of mine, I must confess, is the unfortunate, but reflexive response to the increased politicization of environmental matters, which is the focus of Sabin’s piece.  Although I don’t know him personally, Sabin seems to be a thoughtful professional who is genuinely interested in trying to find solutions to big problems.  And I give him credit for pointing out how this environmental divide developed, including fingering environmentalism itself.

Sabin’s point about environmentalists making the political divide worse, by allying with Democratic forces, couldn’t be truer.  Having served at EPA in the second Bush administration, “W” was a chip off the old block and, like his dad, was committed to conservation and environmental matters.  But ardent environmentalists, who had teamed-up with partisan Democrats, were simply unwilling or politically unable to give credit to the second Bush on his efforts.  The Brookings Institute published a paper in 2002, Everything You Know About the Bush Environmental Record is Wrong.  I observed and experienced first-hand what Sabin describes on several occasions while at EPA, but in no case did this become more real to me than in the death of the Good Samaritan project, which I discuss briefly here.  Pure unadulterated politics killed what should have been a non-partisan effort to improve water quality in thousands of watersheds around the country.  This isn’t to say that there weren’t Democrats and Republicans working lockstep to forge a solution for the Good Samaritan.  There were – and there were many of us.  But unfortunately, they aren’t the voices that won out in the end.

Perhaps I was naive, but I believed then, as I still do, that the importance of these issues do and must transcend politics.  This is a problem not just for the GOP, but rather is a problem for environmentalism and the public good.  Listen, as one who is a GOP party-faithful, I will be the first to acknowledge my party’s fair share of mistakes, including an overreaction to the sky-is-falling narrative of some environmentalists on climate change.  And these mistakes likely drove many environmentalists into the open arms of Democrat machinery, where political alignment was in many respects already a natural fit.  But environmentalists must understand how this shift to the political left has contributed to the toxic environment of environmental discourse and the broad decline in the effectiveness of the environmental movement.

Sadly, the national environmental movement gambled on politics and lost, and is now relegated to the role of town crier.  Without the support of more Republicans and GOP faithful, environmental progress will be difficult, at best, if not impossible.  While the Democrats and main-stream environmentalists continue to beat the drum for more regulations, the GOP remains on defense, blocking any new regulations and pointing to market-based solutions as the sole answer.  What folks need to understand, however, is that, like air is to breathing, regulations are essential, but alone will not fix a broken earth.  What’s needed is a thoughtful mix of regulations and market-solutions, along with more courageous leaders who are willing to set aside or transcend partisan politics in the interest of the greater good.  Environmentalism is not a zero sum game nor should it be played that way.

I go back to my new year’s resolution for less politics and more credible voices. That’s why I’m excited about new leaders and credible voices, like Nordhaus and Shellenberger over at The Breakthough Institute, authors of The Death of Environmentalism, are seeking to usher in a new paradigm of environmental thinking to break the gridlock.  Eli Lehrer, over at the R Street Institute, too is demonstrating courage in the face of stiff political winds.  These individudals represent a new movement of next generation environmental professionals who are helping to develop and deliver solutions to the public and market, notwithstanding the political partisanship and gridlock in DC.