Republicans Take an Important Step Back into the Environmental Debate

Conservation and conservatism: The two are rightfully inseparable. Yet it is fair to say that the Republican brand has for many years been divorced from environmental causes in the public imagination. Widely associated with climate-change skepticism, unquestioning support of the fossil-fuel industry, and the blind harvesting of resources, the GOP’s record on conservation is a bit rocky. But as voters become increasingly worried about the environment, Republicans on the Hill have finally realized that there is no time like the present to show some concern for the fate of the natural world.

Last Wednesday, a group of Republican senators and congressmen gathered to announce the formation of the Roosevelt Conservation Caucus (RCC), to be co-chaired by Senators Lindsey Graham (R., S.C.), Cory Gardner (R., Colo.), and Steve Daines (R., Mont.). According to a press release announcing the news, the RCC will “embrace and promote constructive efforts to address environmental problems, responsibly plan for all market factors, and base policy decisions on science and quantifiable facts.”

The caucus is named, of course, for President Teddy Roosevelt, who was known for his love of the outdoors and championing of environmental causes. The members of the RCC are looking to reclaim that legacy and point American conservatism back toward conservation efforts.

Roosevelt’s legacy on environmental issues is substantial. It was he who signed the 1906 Antiquities Act, which established the first general legal protection of cultural and natural resources in the U.S. and set the stage for our National Parks System. He also established the United States Forest Service (USFS) and five national parks, as well as setting aside 230 million acres as public land.

Along with his legislative endeavors, Roosevelt wrote and spoke extensively on the importance of conservation. In a 1910 speech delivered at the dedication of the John Brown Memorial Park in Osawatomie, Kan., Roosevelt declared:

Conservation means development as much as it does protection. I recognize the right and duty of this generation to develop and use the natural resources of our land; but I do not recognize the right to waste them, or to rob, by wasteful use, the generations that come after us.

The Roosevelt Conservation Caucus seeks to embrace this two-pronged approach to its namesake cause, championing policies that both develop and protect the country’s natural resources. As Senator Gardner put it, the caucus aims to be “a platform that will help shine more light on Republican efforts on innovative, economically viable policies which will both improve the environment and make sure the American people continue to have the highest quality of life possible.”

The GOP record on the environment is certainly not spotless, but it’s not without significant successes either. Roosevelt, the father of American conservation, is an obvious hero for the founders of the RCC to embrace, but there are others of more recent vintage from whom the caucus can take inspiration.

In 1970, President Nixon created the Environmental Protection Agency. In 1989, President George H.W. Bush established the U.S. Global Change Research Program, which oversees the National Climate Assessment. And in January, a Republican House and Senate granted the Land and Water Conservation Fund a permanent reauthorization.

The RCC was founded in part to remind the public that the GOP is not as monolithically unconcerned with environmental causes as is commonly suggested. President Trump has opened up public lands for extraction, lifted regulations on air pollution, and slashed the size of park lands. He has called climate change a “hoax” and has made clear through his appointments and actions that environmental protection is extremely low on his list of priorities. But his is certainly not the only approach to such issues within the party, and the RCC hasn’t been shy about pointing it out.

“I’ve traveled around the world and studied this issue, and when nine out of ten scientists say CO2 emissions are creating a greenhouse-gas effect and the planet is warming up, I believe the nine out of the ten, not the one,” Senator Graham said at Wednesday’s press conference. “I would encourage the president to look long and hard at the science and find the solution. I’m tired of playing defense on the environment.”

The RCC is poised to give a voice to the majority of Republicans who care about clean air, clean water, and renewable energy, but do not want to see the economy destroyed in the name of protecting the environment. The environmental debate of recent memory has been commonly framed as one of extremes, between utter denial on the right and frenzied panic concerning the state of the planet on the left. Voters are tired of this false choice. They sense that practical solutions are better than hysterical preaching, and would happily support leaders who tried to offer the former.

With Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez’s Green New Deal continuing to make waves, the formation of the RCC is presciently timed to satisfy the need for a Republican platform dedicated to environmental debates. The RCC has the potential to create common-sense, bipartisan policies that work with market forces — policies that do not necessitate changing the entire economic system, as the authors of the Green New Deal demand.

The Green New Deal’s goals are pragmatically impossible, as even sympathizers have noted. In order to supply “100 percent of the power demand in the United States through clean, renewable, and zero-emission energy sources” within the next ten years, as the plan aims to do, the government would have to regulate the nation back to the Middle Ages.

“Simply put, we believe in innovation when it comes to solving environmental problems, not regulation. We believe you can have a healthy environment and still fly a plane and eat a hamburger,” Graham said on Wednesday. The RCC’s goal is to harness the powers of the economy to work for the environment, rather than tearing down the economy to save the planet.

While no concrete policy proposals have yet emerged from the RCC, the press conference suggested that plans for a carbon tax, climate-resilient infrastructure, and increased funding of clean-energy research are likely to be among the initial proposals. By means distinctly less flashy than the Green New Deal, Republicans and consensus-minded Democrats have been working to formulate innovative solutions to environmental problems. Section 45Q of the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2018 — the last omnibus to pass under the GOP-controlled House — included a significant tax credit for the implementation of carbon-capture technology. In February, the bipartisan USE IT Act was again introduced by Senator John Barrasso (R., Wyo.) to expand upon the Section 45Q tax credit and further support research into COutilization and direct-air-capture research.

Such efforts are proof that environmental issues need not divide us along party lines. All voters should want to eliminate pollutants, promote the use of clean-energy technologies, and protect our nation’s natural resources and beauty. As Senator Daines noted on Wednesday, “this is an issue that can unite this city, [and] bring Republicans and Democrats together with pragmatic solutions that will indeed continue to lead towards clean air, clean water, and protecting our environment.”