More than 25 years ago, the Reagan administration acknowledged the importance of studying the “greenhouse effect.” In 1990, conservative icon Margaret Thatcher—speaking at the 2nd World Climate Conference—warned that climate change is “real enough for us to make changes and sacrifices, so that we do not live at the expense of future generations.” To hear these political giants call for climate action, as they do in this video, is to recognize that this issue is an inherently conservative one.
In the years since those speeches, the science has become more certain, and the warnings more dire. There is irrefutable evidence showing that fossil fuel emissions are altering our atmosphere, pushing the planet into a precarious, unprecedented place that threatens our health and safety, our prosperity, our security, and our way of life.
Today, most rank-and-file Republicans acknowledge the problem. A new poll from the University of Texas finds fifty-nine percent of Republicans say climate change is occurring. This echoes other polls, including this one by the conservative ClearPath Foundation, which found 56 percent of Republicans recognize climate change is a problem and that human activity contributes to it. The survey also found an overwhelming 80 percent of conservative Republicans responded that they support accelerating the growth of clean energy to reduce pollution.
Yet there still remains a huge disconnect when it comes to elected Republican leaders, where year after year, decade after decade, concerns about climate change have continued to fall on deaf ears.
How can it be that today, in 2015—a quarter of a century after Margaret Thatcher underscored the need to act—most of the GOP presidential candidates and a significant majority of Republicans in Congress remain unwilling to take climate change seriously?
This disconnect has occurred, in large part, because the Republican Party has been increasingly catering to its most radical elements—which include a vocal minority opposed to action on climate change. Whether it is members of Congress fearing a primary challenge, candidate selection being ceded to a handful of convention delegates, gerrymandered safe districts, GOP leaders giving a vocal minority outsized influence, or just rank partisanship, the Party has been veering ever further towards the fringe.
Not only is their reluctance out of sync with most Republican voters, it betrays the most basic conservative principles, cedes solutions to the Democrats, and puts the Party at a real disadvantage when it comes to attracting swing voters—especially those under 30.
It wasn’t always like this. Republican leaders of the past, when faced with big environmental challenges, rose to the occasion and met the problem head-on with prudent and effective policies.
Reagan and Thatcher were genuine conservatives who understood mankind’s stewardship obligation and their own duties as leaders. When climate scientists warned about chemicals that were depleting the earth’s ozone layer, both—ignoring opposition within their own party—pushed through the Montreal Protocol Treaty to phase out such chemicals.
Ironically, that treaty has accomplished far more than healing the earth’s ozone layer. By reducing very potent greenhouse gases, it has also slowed the rate of climate change.
Beyond Reagan and Thatcher being pioneers in climate stewardship, other conservative leaders of the past have also answered the call to solve big environmental challenges: Theodore Roosevelt responded to land and wildlife degradation, Richard Nixon tackled massive pollution problems, and George H.W. Bush successfully addressed acid rain.
Where is that kind of conservative leadership today? Where is the prudence, the foresight, and the sense of duty that so clearly compelled past conservative leaders to action?
Perhaps the best place to look is Rep. Chris Gibson (R-N.Y.) and the ten other lawmakers who recently introduced a Republican climate resolution (H. Res. 424) in the House of Representatives. That resolution—perfectly in line with a majority of Republican voters—acknowledges climate change, the role of human activities, and calls for conservative engagement on the issue.
In her speech to the World Climate Conference, Thatcher eloquently expressed the conservative sense of stewardship, she said:
“We must remember our duty to Nature before it is too late. That duty is constant. It is never completed...It will weigh on our shoulders for as long as we wish to dwell on a living and thriving planet, and hand it on to our children and theirs.”
By supporting and passing the Gibson resolution, Republicans could start making up for lost time, rise to confront the defining environmental challenge of our time, and finally pick up where Reagan and Thatcher left off.
Jenkins is president of Conservatives for Responsible Stewardship.