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Republicans for Environmental Progress: An Endangered Species

By / 3.25.2011

For most of modern American history, the two major political parties in America have largely agreed on the desired long-term environmental outcomes for the country: there was a consensus among Republicans and Democrats that it was a good thing to press for cleaner air and water, less toxins in the environment, biodiversity preservation, and mitigation strategies for clean energy and, mostly recently, climate change.

The disagreements were largely centered around how to achieve these outcomes, and to some extent the pace of change and the absolute targets. Democrats by and large preferred a heavier regulatory approach (i.e. “command and control”) that set specific firm-level emissions limits, prescribed permissible technologies, and set industry-wide energy and fuel efficiency standards. Republicans tended to support more market-oriented policies, with cap and trade foremost among them.

Nowadays, the arguments are no longer over the methods to achieve environmental progress, but whether we should support such progress in the first place. This situation is unprecedented. Those who believed that divided government would lead Republicans to take a more moderate and constructive role have so far been proven wrong. It is hard to imagine the situation being much worse for America’s environmental quality, which is directly linked to the quality of life for all Americans.

The modern Republican Party has absolutely no affirmative environmental agenda whatsoever, and goes so far as to contest the entire rationale for continued environmental progress. Ironically, this extremely reactionary environmental agenda is coming at a time when the ideas that Republicans once championed are now widely accepted as the best ways to structure environmental policy.

The cap and trade bill that died in the U.S. Congress in 2010 was based on market-oriented principles that were the centerpiece of George Bush Sr.’s cap and trade policy for sulfur dioxide, enacted in 1990. It permitted maximum flexibility in achieving its goals of greenhouse gas reductions over a long time horizon, giving businesses plenty of time to adjust and adapt. The bill’s intellectual foundations were so strongly rooted in conservative economics that then-presidential candidate John McCain was a huge supporter of the measure and included it in his presidential platform.

And yet today, the Republican-led House of Representatives has voted to deny the science of climate change and strip the EPA of its authority to regulate greenhouse gases, which was granted to the agency by a 5-4 decision in the very conservative-leaning Supreme Court. The GOP-led House has proposed gutting the EPA’s budget as well. And it gets worse.

The Republicans in the House have refused to end the subsidies for oil companies (as these firms continue to rake in record profits), and while they seek to reduce food stamps, they have made it clear that they will not touch the billions in agricultural subsidies that disproportionately benefit big agribusiness. Adding insult to injury, House Republicans even reintroduced Styrofoam into the House cafeteria after Democrats had removed it during the last Congress.

I have been involved in environmental policy for almost 20 years and have never seen anything like the current Republican assault on the environment. It is truly astounding. To be clear, the Republicans leading this charge against environmental progress are in no way following conservative principles ― they are doing the exact opposite. Those who profess to support conservative economics should be leading the charge against subsidies for big business and taking a firm stance in favor of the “polluter pays principle,” which states that those producers and consumers whose actions degrade the environment should pay for the damage. (You know we’re living in an upside down world when the one avowed socialist in the Senate, Bernie Sanders, has been the most vociferous opponent of oil company handouts.)

There is absolutely nothing “free market” about letting polluters trash the environment for free. In fact, this fits the definition of a market failure, not a well-functioning capitalist system. What the Republicans are currently practicing is crony capitalism of the worst kind: rewarding industry at the expense of the public interest and future generations.

It is the Republican rank and file who should be the most offended by these policies. Public opinion polls consistent show that both Democrats and Republicans care deeply about the environment, and support clean energy policies and strong environmental safeguards. Unfortunately, the once proud environmental ethic of the Republican Party has been snuffed out by a small group of radical Tea Party extremists who are deeply confused both about true conservative principles and the proper role of government in society. And once moderate Republicans who supported sensible environmental policies are nowhere to be seen. Until true conservatives retake the Republican Party we will be left doing little more than damage control, and the chances of a new comprehensive affirmative environmental agenda are slim to none.