Energy & Environment

GOP has an opportunity to define its environmental identity

In a week that saw a Senate committee pass a bill that would require the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to use “reproducible” science, and Rep. Sam Johnson (R-Texas) introduced the Wasteful EPA Programs Elimination Act, it would be easy to think that the GOP will continue to be the “anti-environment” party moving forward. Yet the GOP’s senior leadership, as well as Republican presidential hopefuls, are suggesting that an anti-environment platform isn’t enough and that the GOP should not cede the environment as an issue to the Democrats. A few weeks ago, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) challenged his own party, asking, “What is the environmental platform of the Republican Party?” He paused, then answered, “I don’t know either.”

Several things have come together to make the run-up to the next presidential election an opportune time for Republicans to answer Graham’s challenge in ways that are consistent with conservative ideology:

{mosads}1. Proactive, not reactive, position: Republicans have a rare opportunity to define their priorities, rather than simply being forced to respond to an incumbent’s programs.

2. Widely differing opinions: There are widely divergent views on the environment emerging within the party, on critical issues ranging from how to address climate change to encouraging true competition without subsidies for fossil fuel energy companies. Polls suggest many Americans have similar questions, so a lively debate would be a positive for the party.

3. Environment as security threat: For decades, the GOP has framed itself as the party of national security. Environmental issues are recognized by the Pentagon as posing severe international and domestic security threats. Loss of marine fisheries will lead to profound food shortages. Changing temperatures already facilitate the spread of several infectious diseases within the U.S. Biodiversity is important to human health and well-being. Changes in precipitation will affect crops to an extent that is likely to destabilize entire regions while already affecting the agricultural economies of key states such as California, which saw a loss of $2.2 billion in 2014. What environmental policy measures need to be enacted to preserve our national and economic security?

4. Values: Evangelical Christians, ranging from newly announced candidate Mike Huckabee, the former Republican governor of Arkansas, to Katharine Hayhoe, director of the Climate Science Center at Texas Tech are increasingly viewing environmental protection through a religious lens, recognizing the need to act as stewards of God’s creation. Even Pope Francis is updating the Roman Catholic Church’s climate/environmental teachings. Many business-based approaches to conservation being developed today to limit carbon emissions and conserve wildlife can create opportunities to unify the base while remaining true to the party’s core values.

5. Pragmatism: Two-thirds of Americans believe that climate change is real and would vote for a candidate promoting alternative energy sources over fossil fuels. It would be foolish to concede an issue that might set party preferences for a generation of young voters.

6. Economics: Historically, the United States has achieved economic success by leading through innovation. Cost-competitive, clean energy alternatives are both a necessity and a tremendous opportunity. How can we best utilize our comparative advantages in wealth and technology to accelerate the creation and use of clean energy alternatives so that we are leading other nations, not following?

7. Subsidies and infrastructure investments: Given the growing need to transform our energy system so it is more secure and self-sufficient, should the government continue to subsidize fossil fuel-based energy companies? Similar questions need to be addressed in terms of upgrading transportation systems with both economic and environmental objectives in mind.

8. Land and water: Should U.S. public lands be sold or transferred to states or private individuals? How would hunters, anglers and other outdoor recreationalists be affected? And what about water? It’s not hard to imagine a future where water wars — already underway in several states — could get nastier. It would be good for the federal government to consider its role in setting national water policies. Given changing water availability, what civic and agricultural policies should be put in place now to prepare for the trade-offs that will have to be made between food production and urban communities?

Addressing these fundamental questions will go a long way in recasting the public’s impression of the GOP. The party of Presidents Lincoln, Grant and Teddy Roosevelt, all key figures in conserving our environment through national parks, has an opportunity to reclaim its voice on the environment.

Travis is faculty director for the environment at Cornell University’s Atkinson Center for a Sustainable Future and is an associate professor of reproductive biology and wildlife conservation at Cornell’s Baker Institute for Animal Health at the College of Veterinary Medicine. Views expressed in his column are his alone and do not represent those of these institutions.

Tags 2016 presidential campaign 2016 Republican primary Environment environmental policy Environmental Protection Agency Environmentalism EPA Lindsey Graham Republican Party Sam Johnson

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