We Weren’t Always So Divided on Climate
By Toddi L. Steelman, Stanback Dean of the Nicholas School of the Environment
Where can we forge an agenda that unites us in these polarizing times?
There is growing agreement among the American public that climate change is real and that humans are likely causing it. As the frequency and intensity of extreme weather events increases, the impacts are more viscerally undeniable. I think conditions are right for making great strides on climate, if we are strategic about it.
While the news likes to focus on the continued divide among Democrats and Republicans as it relates to climate change— Democrats are more likely to believe in climate change, that it is human caused and are more willing to pay to address it than Republicans —I think this misses an important opportunity to find shared interests. In these polarizing times, often forgotten is that Republicans of the past had been at the forefront of championing environmental values.
The EPA was created under Richard Nixon’s Republican administration. Nixon, not exactly a tree-hugging poster child, saw the value of preserving beauty and natural resources for future generations. With the environment having become such a political and divisive issue today, it is hard to imagine that his administration put into place the major pillars of environmental law and regulation—the National Environmental Policy Act, the Endangered Species Act, the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act, among others. It is equally hard to imagine a president today saying the same words Nixon expressed in his State of the Union speech in 1970: “Restoring nature to its natural state is a cause beyond party and beyond factions. It has become a common cause of all the people of this country.”
George H.W. Bush established the U.S. Global Change Research Program as part of the National Climate Assessment in 1990, he oversaw the revisions to the Clean Air Act of 1990 and attended the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992. This history of Republican support for and interest in the environment and natural resources extends back to Teddy Roosevelt in the early 1900s.
All of this is to say that there is a long history and demonstrable record of bipartisan agreement on environmental issues that could once again be resurrected for the good of
The question is: Where could we have the greatest chance of success? And that begs the question: What would success look like? I suggest it might meet the following criteria.
First, it needs to be politically feasible—in other words, we need to start with something that stands a chance of bipartisan consensus.
Second, it needs to build on the problem as understood by the American public. The polling data suggests we need to address climate extremes as well as do something that makes us more resilient to climate extremes.
Third, we need to hit the triple bottom line of enhancing economic competitiveness, resilience and security. This would build public appeal and resonate with themes that are widely understood by the American public. So what could we do?
Advocate for a carbon tax. The Energy Policy Institute at the University of Chicago found that nearly half of Americans support a carbon tax and that support climbs once people understand how the funds would be used. If the tax is targeted toward environmental restoration projects, almost two-thirds support it. More than half support it if the tax goes toward renewable energy programs and public transportation solutions.
Invest in infrastructure. The American Society of Civil Engineers estimates a $2 trillion investment gap on the needs in our built environment. If made well, investments in transportation, water and wastewater, and energy, among other areas, could improve our resilience while also enhancing our economic competitiveness. Perhaps more importantly, this agenda spans the rural and urban divide and the ideological spectrum.
Explicitly invest in rural areas. The downfall of carbon taxes everywhere, from Washington state to Canada and France (see the yellow vest movement), has been a failure to bring along rural constituencies. A carbon tax could be used to re-invest in rural areas that have been left behind or might be disproportionately affected by a carbon tax.
For instance, imagine mine reclamation projects that restore landscapes, encourage economic development and generate new revenue streams from homegrown, emergent industries that are more socially, economically and environmentally sustainable and in line with Appalachia’s or other mining states’ cultural heritage. Or seed investments in soil, streams, wetlands, farms, rangelands, grasslands and forests.
To care about the environment, you need to be a relentless optimist. I think we have reason to be more optimistic than usual given the current conditions if we are smart and can capitalize on this particular moment. In doing so, we could do the right thing, for the right reasons and feel good in the process. When was the last time that happened in American politics?
THIS COLUMN WAS FIRST PUBLISHED AS A GUEST EDITORIAL IN THE HILL ON JAN. 27, 2019.