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Dear Conservatives: Yes, You Can Go Green Again

Posted by Richard Conniff on June 11, 2016

Teddy Roosevelt and the conservative roots of American conservation.

Teddy Roosevelt and the conservative roots of American conservation.

by Richard Conniff/The New York Times

NOT long ago I wrote an essay on how to talk about environmental issues with conservatives. Talk persuasively, that is, not confrontationally. A conservative promptly replied that I was afflicted with “fundamental ignorance,” and possibly worse. The gist of it was that conservatives are already environmentalists, and the rest of us are just too stupid to recognize it. I put on my cheerfully positive face and suggested that he amplify his point by listing 10 pro-environment actions by conservatives in this century. (O.K., maybe that was my passive-aggressive face, given that George W. Bush was president for eight of those 16 years.) He replied with more name-calling.

This is a shame, because conservatives used to be almost by definition conservationists, focused on preserving our shared heritage from destructive influences. You can, in fact, date the rise of the conservation movement as a political force in this country to a December 1887 dinner party of wealthy big game hunters, largely Republicans, hosted in a Madison Avenue house by Theodore Roosevelt (still a hero to many modern conservatives, despite certain progressive leanings). He and his guests that night formed the Boone and Crockett Club, dedicated to preservation and management of game.

Putting to work their considerable social and political clout, as well as their money, they went on to save the bison from extinction, greatly expand the national park system, and help establish both the National Wildlife Refuge System and the United States Forest Service. The Lacey Act, still our most important law against wildlife crime, was largely their doing. Ducks Unlimited, a Boone and Crockett offshoot, became an early force for wetland conservation.

This natural link between conservatives and conservation lasted through much of the 20th century. Conservatives may complain about oil companies being shut out of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, but most of the credit for protecting that habitat belongs to Dwight D. Eisenhower, who also signed the nation’s first air pollution control law. Richard M. Nixon, not otherwise a candidate for sainthood, changed the way the nation lives, breathes and does business, establishing the Environmental Protection Agency and enacting the Clean Air Act and the Endangered Species Act, among other major environmental initiatives. George H. W. Bush, finally, began to take conservation in a new market-based direction, pushing through a cap-and-trade system in 1990 that enabled industry to reduce sulfur dioxide emissions, which causes acid rain, far more quickly and cheaply than anyone imagined possible.

So what does it take to bring conservatives back, after a quarter-century of their reflexively treating even the mention of environmental issues as a treasonous attack on business and the nation? It’s possible they are already returning, with the House of Representatives last month approving a major environmental reform by an astonishingly bipartisan 403 to 12 margin, and the Senate almost certain to follow.

Among that legislation’s sponsors are the unlikely Senate partners Tom Udall, Democrat of New Mexico, and David Vitter, Republican of Louisiana. It repairs and strengthens the 1976 Toxic Substances Control Act, and belatedly enhances the Environmental Protection Agency’s power to test the safety of chemicals being developed and manufactured every year. Industry came to the table because a single federal regulatory standard seemed preferable to state-by-state regulation. The rest was old-fashioned give-and-take, with each side resisting the urge to fling bombs at the other, and both swallowing aspects of the law they didn’t like for the common good. It was a product, that is, of what we used to call democracy.

It’s also arguably a model for further cooperation on environmental issues. But how to make progress on other vital environmental issues? It will help for environmentalists to acknowledge past contributions by conservatives and also the potential value of conservative approaches for the future.

For instance, a program called “catch shares,” pushed by both the George W. Bush and Obama administrations, has arguably done more for fish stocks and the fishing industry than decades of old-style command-and-control government regulation. There are about 15 active fisheries nationwide, and federal councils simply establish the sustainable annual catch and allot a share to each fishing boat.

As with cap-and-trade for acid rain, each participant is then free to figure out the most efficient way forward — going out when the weather is good, or the price is high, rather than wasting fuel and long hours racing to out-fish competitors in an artificially shortened season. The catch share system has begun to rebuilt stocks and increase profits for fisheries from Alaskan halibut to Gulf of Mexico red snapper. A study early this year found that kind of share-based reform has the potential to restore 98 percent of fisheries worldwide and sustainably feed a much larger human population by 2050.

But win-win situations are hard to come by. Real progress may require both sides to rethink sacred cows. For instance, Jonathan Adler, a Case Western Reserve University law professor with a libertarian take, argues that perverse incentives make the Endangered Species Act ineffective. Landowners often deny wildlife researchers access to their land and have at times even destroyed potential habitat, for fear of endangered species (and the attendant regulations) turning up there. Mr. Adler argues for a system of easements and subsidies to reward property owners, instead of punishing them, for protecting endangered species.

On the other hand, if conservatives genuinely oppose big government, Mr. Adler adds, they should start by opposing costly government programs that are a leading cause of environmental damage — including fossil fuel subsidies, ethanol subsidies, agricultural subsidies and many of the ill-conceived dam and irrigation projects of the Army Corps of Engineers and the Bureau of Reclamation.

Mr. Adler doesn’t draw the line at turning federal lands over to private ownership, under the right circumstances — for instance, with groups like the Nature Conservancy among the potential private owners. I think that would be a betrayal of Teddy Roosevelt’s considerable bequest to the nation, with Cliven Bundy clones more likely to be among the owners. But Mr. Adler and I could certainly talk about market-based alternatives to the current federal mismanagement.

With recent polls suggesting that climate change has begun to loom ominously for many Republicans as it does for the majority of Democrats, it may be time for big, bold, even alarmingly bipartisan thoughts. In the end, our need for clean air to breathe, safe water to drink, a climate that does not change too drastically and forests, oceans and wildlife that remain healthy and resilient has almost nothing to do with whether we are Republicans or Democrats, conservatives or liberals, and everything to do with being fellow residents of Planet Earth, with no place else to call home. So here’s the idea: Why don’t we all just take a walk and have a long conversation about how we can fix up the old neighborhood together?

Richard Conniff is the author of “House of Lost Worlds: Dinosaurs, Dynasties, and the Story of Life on Earth” and a contributing opinion writer.

To read the full story in the New York Times, click here.

One Response to “Dear Conservatives: Yes, You Can Go Green Again”

  1. […] are a couple of letters to the editor in response to my recent New York Times op-ed “Dear Conservatives, You Can Go Green Again”  They are both literally on the […]

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