I’m likely to spend New Year’s Eve and Day responding to comments and emails from committed progressives and trolls who will excoriate me just for the headline, and from relatives worried about my emotional state. As an eternal optimist, though, I believe the tens of thousands of Republicans like me—those who believe protection of our nation’s natural resources should be a national priority—will see the GOP move to regain its great conservation tradition in the coming year.
Here’s what happened in 2013 to portend that conclusion:
Countless polls released during the year reflect growing support for efforts to protect our environment, including climate action. In November, polls released by Pew and Stanford University showed that three out of four Americans favor reduction of greenhouse gas emissions and other conservation measures. The polls reported that about 2 out of 3 Republican respondents favor conservation measures.
Those data points suggest that, with a few exceptions, it doesn’t matter how a district is gerrymandered. With trends showing increasing support over time, Republicans will have to answer the bell sooner than later.
Faith and the Pro-Life Party
For many years, “creation care” has been the term used in religious circles to frame environmental protection. In 2013, creation care leaders saw their work blossom into a pro-life movement. Their messaging has been so successful, that a few of the old-line pro-life organizations felt the need to push back and try to protect their turf for the single issue of abortion.
Again, demographics are working in favor of expanding the idea of “pro-life” to include more than just fighting abortion. Recent polls show a heightening awareness among young Christians, especially evangelicals, that being a Christian citizen means living out Matthew 25:35-40.
Pope Francis arrived on the scene in March, and continues to turn old perceptions upside down. The United States has 68 million Catholics—largely pro-life voters—and the Holy Father’s impact should not be under estimated. Insiders believe the next papal encyclical will focus on creation care—if true, every Catholic university, society, and congregation in America will be immersed in faith-based environmental protection values.
It’s not just Catholics on the march, either. Every main stream Christian denomination has adopted a statement on creation care, including the influential Southern Baptists. Groups like Evangelical Environmental Network, Christian Coalition, and Catholic Climate Covenant are working to build a faith-based response to environmental issues.
Conservation of our water, air, climate, and wilderness will be greater factors for faith voters, and Republicans will have to react in order to prevent erosion of the margin the party has enjoyed among pro-life voters in recent decades.
New Groups Enter The Arena
Over the past year, we’ve seen the launch or growth of several organizations working to frame environmental policy in conservative terms. The Conservation Leadership Circle is a grass-tops group with several former high ranking members of Republican cabinets including former Secretary of the Interior Gale Norton and former head of the White House Office of Environmental Policy Jim Connaughton. Bob Inglis, former congressman from South Carolina, expanded his Energy and Enterprise Initiative at George Mason University this year.
The Atlanta Tea Party became an unexpected advocate for clean and renewable energy, as it worked to diversify Georgia’s energy mix. Partnering with the Sierra Club, they formed the Green Tea Coalition. In Arizona, libertarian and conservative scion Barry Goldwater Jr. led an effort to expand solar energy, under the auspices of TUSK (interestingly, using an elephant for its logo!).
In Michigan, where new wind power is running around $43/mwh—about half the cost of coal or natural gas power—a group of conservative leaders has been formed to advocate for continued investment in renewable energy. This group is the vanguard of a national effort to focus on a few key states, so the likelihood of similar groups popping up across the country is realistic.
Founded in 1995, ConservAmerica remains the only group focused on Republican voters and Republican policy, but we view the growing number of groups jumping into The Arena, as Theodore Roosevelt called it, confirmation of our trademarked motto, “Conservation is Conservative.”
U.S. Chamber of Commerce Looks Ahead
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce announced in December that it will spend $50 million to support more main stream Republican candidates. While many have interpreted this as being ‘anti-tea party’, it is really about helping elect candidates who will make government work. This should have a positive long-term impact for conservation-minded voters, as the Chamber gradually recognizes the positive impact conservation has on jobs and our economy. It could also be the counter-balance to spending by anti-government groups; in effect, forcing candidates in Republican primaries to run on ideas, not just opposing Democratic policies or shutting down government.
One thing business likes more than anything else (except for low taxes) is certainty. Exxon and other major fossil fuel companies are already using business models that put a price on carbon (in Exxon’s case, $60 per ton), and have public statements on environmental protection and climate change on their web sites. Sooner than later, the U.S. Chamber will need to advocate for certainty.
Republican Conservation Caucus
This year, we’ve seen fairly conservative members of Congress introduce wilderness bills for the benefit of their home districts. Each bill serves as a case study of the positive economic impact wilderness areas provide to a region, and should make it easier for Republicans to gain co-sponsors for their own conservation bills within the caucus in 2014.
Additionally, 28 Republicans in the House signed a letter in support of the Land and Water Conservation Fund in December. LWCF is one of the most important conservation arrows in our national quiver. Originally passed in 1965 with near unanimous support in the House, much of its non-tax funding has been diverted to other budget line items in recent years.
Anecdotally, ConservAmerica has fielded a record number of calls from prospective 2014 candidates who want a “Republican Conservation Agenda” to include in their campaign platforms.
Republican governors, like Jan Brewer (AZ), Rick Snyder (MI), Chris Christie (NJ), John Kasich (OH), Terry Brandstad (IA), Dave Heineman (NE), Mary Fallin (OK) and Matt Mead (WY), have made strong supportive statements on a variety of conservation issues during the past year. The rubber meets the road in state capitols, and governors see first-hand the rewards of conservative environmental policy. In the news recently, Utah Governor Gary Herbert endorsed EPA’s stronger rules to mitigate the smog inversions suffered by his state, a serious public health issue. And it’s worth noting that even Texas Governor Rick Perry has exercised strong leadership in making his state the number one producer of renewable energy in the nation.
Perhaps a harbinger of good things to come, two of the names being discussed by Republican activists as top tier candidates for president in 2016 are Christie and Jeb Bush. Christie is a strong supporter of clean energy investment and has looked into the eyes of thousands of human faces impacted by a super storm. Bush’s leadership on Everglades, water, and coastal issues was outstanding during his time as governor of Florida. Both bring a ‘no nonsense, let’s get the job done’ attitude and leadership style to their work.
Like Ronald Reagan, who bucked his political advisors and acted on counsel from the scientific community when he pushed through the Montreal Protocol, Christie and Bush are leaders who govern based facts and common sense, not winds of the moment.
2014 and Beyond…
Each point above requires a nuanced appreciation of where we’ve been, and how far we have yet to go. In total, for an optimist like me, the landing lights are on and visibility is unlimited.
I know from past experience that people who read this will fall into one of three categories. First, Republicans or libertarians who think Republican environmentalism is like oil and water. Second, progressives (left of center) who think Republicans are the real Axis of Evil. Third, Republicans (and former Republicans) who get it.
For those of you in the first two categories, live dangerously! Forward this piece or ConservAmerica’s website (www.conservamerica.org) to your Republican friends and see what kind of response you get. Then, come back and flame me in the comment section! For those of you in the third category, ConservAmerica is an organization of kindred souls. Join us at our website and share us with all your like-minded friends.
Rob Sisson is president of ConservAmerica. He lives in Sturgis, MI, where he served two terms as mayor and is a city commissioner. He points out to the jaded that the motto on the Sisson family crest hawked by a variety of fake peerage websites is “Hope for the Best”.
Happy New Year!