Conservatives, Young People, and the Environment in 2014

mount-rushmore-23161191 (2)Since the 2008 election cycle, conservatives have lamented the loss of constituencies key to cobbling together a winning vote: women, minorities, and young people. When it comes to environmental issues, conservatives have really lost their credibility. Apart from attacking environmental regulations as “job-killers,” the party of Theodore Roosevelt for the most part has failed to carve out a message of respect and concern for the planet.

That’s a shame, for many of the current trends in environmental protection are evolving in a way that provides opportunity for conservative principles to shine. These trends also promise to entice young people to embrace the notion that free markets and the spirit of American innovation can drive a better quality of life and health.

The first trend is the availability of increased energy supplies, both natural gas and oil, from horizontal fracturing of shale. Current estimate of US reserves of gas and oil potentially available using horizontal drilling techniques are creating a marketplace of dramatic abundance for decades going forward. Cheap, reliable stores of energy are luring global manufacturers back to U.S. soil.

While politically controversial in some areas, the “business” of ensuring that hydraulic fracturing is done safely and protectively, without harming human life or the environment, will create jobs for those skilled in natural resources, engineering, and science. The drilling itself requires skilled technicians and geologists. In addition, natural gas has a much lower greenhouse gas emissions profile than fuels such as coal, so a widespread substitution could benefit from a climate change perspective.

The resurgence of manufacturing is also brightening the commercial real estate market. Affordable, well-located properties are often lightly-contaminated from some previous owner, such as former gas stations or steel mills. Cleanup and redevelopment of these “brownfields” properties will improve the environment and create jobs. In addition, dredging of the major US ports in order to prepare for deeper-draft ships once the Panama Canal is deepened will require movement of many tons of sediment, often contaminated from years of industrial runoff. Creative recycling and reuse of these dredged spoils, where recycled into asphalt or used to create engineered shorelines that expand the waterfront, will enhance waterfront property values and landscapes.

Lastly, American innovation is increasingly being harvested to create the sustainable products and materials of the future. Lighter, safer vehicles; electronics that can perform increasingly complex tasks with fewer energy requirements; and products that are safer to use in commerce require advanced research, testing, and development cycles. America’s colleges and universities are straining to graduate sufficient scientists, engineers, and technology experts to meet the demand of top innovation entrepreneurs. That development bodes well for young people seeking interesting, meaningful employment in the US economy.

These improvements are all driven by the forces of the free market, abetted by US innovation and industry. Certainly the environmental progress we see today is built upon a solid foundation of laws and regulations, and conservatives are right to question the value of future regulation in terms of diminishing returns. However, criticism of new rules should not obscure the great success we are enjoying today as a result of markets driving environmental progress – reduced climate impacts; improved quality of life; cleaner lands and waterways; and safer products in commerce. The promise that this trend offers young people is full participation in a great democracy where their economic success and ability to improve their environment is unlimited. The idea that young people can use market forces to shape a greener planet – both in terms of careers and life- should appeal across the ideological spectrum.