Conservatism and Energy Policy

By PAM RAGON, a member of REP’s Board of Directors and president of the Texas Chapter

AN HISTORICAL DOCUMENT: Pam gave this speech to the Re-Energize Texas Summit at Huston-Tillotson University in Austin, Texas, on March 28, 2009.

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Good afternoon.

I would like to thank the conference organizers for inviting me here today. And I am honored to share the podium with Congressman [Lloyd] Doggett.

What an amazing group you have assembled here today. It is wonderful to see so much enthusiasm and energy dedicated to environmental issues.

I imagine many of you were surprised to see a Republican on the agenda for this conference. Let me start out today with a little history of our organization. REP was formed 12 years ago by three women who were passionate about the environment and just happened to be Republicans.

Since that time, REP has established itself as the leading Republican voice on the great environmental issues of our time. For example, we were instrumental in securing enough Republican votes to join with Democrats in protecting the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

In 2008, REP was proud to endorse Senator McCain during the primaries. We were very encouraged to finally have a candidate for President who placed some emphasis on the environment during his campaign. Many of you may not know it, but the McCain campaign was instrumental in having language which addressed climate change placed into the Republican platform for the first time.

As an organization, we are dedicated to restoring the GOP to its conservation tradition. Our goal is to reach the day when having Republicans at an environmental conference does not result in snickers or even a second thought. Our slogan: “Conservation Is Conservative” sums up in a nutshell who we are and what we’re trying to achieve.

Since most of you out there are students, I thought I would start out with something you’re all familiar with. A pop quiz!

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Which president was the first president in history to set aside land for conservation and public enjoyment?

That was Abraham Lincoln — also our first Republican president. The land that Lincoln protected from development on June 30, 1864 — at the height of the Civil War — and gave to the State of California ultimately came back to the American people as Yosemite National Park.

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Which president was the first to protect the magnificent coastal plain that today is part of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge?

That was Dwight D. Eisenhower, Republican.

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And finally, which president pushed Congress to pass the Clean Air Act and other laws that make up the framework of today’s national environmental policy?

Yes, that was Richard Nixon.

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And a bonus question: which president established three national marine monuments that make up the largest marine reserve on earth?

Yep, it was George W. Bush.

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I hope it’s now clear to you that the Republican Party hasn’t always lacked focus on environmental issues. But somewhere along the way, we lost that focus. It’s hard to say exactly how, when or why that happened. Perhaps it could be that the sort of folks who were very concerned about the environment were the same people who were against the war in Vietnam, and so environmental issues came to be associated with the left.

But none of that really matters any more. We don’t believe conservation should be a partisan issue. There are no Republican forests or Democratic rivers. As Theodore Roosevelt said, conservation is a moral issue, which gets at the heart of conservation as an element of the conservative ethic. (And by the way, Teddy Roosevelt is the patron saint of REP, because he truly was a champion of conservation.)

As we see it, conservation complements traditional conservative values, such as thrift, efficiency, paying your own way, discipline, self-restraint, putting society’s interests ahead of your own, and looking after the interests of future generations.

This is why REP is focused on educating our party and its leaders about environmental issues from a conservative perspective. And that last part is important. I am often asked, if you care so much about the environment, why don’t you just become a Democrat?

It’s simply because my world view is different, and was shaped by conservative thinkers and philosophers like Edmund Burke and Russell Kirk. These men espoused a philosophy that requires us to be good stewards and protect the interests of future generations. Edmund Burke was an 18th century British statesman and is widely regarded as the father of modern conservatism. He described society as an intergenerational contract, covering past, present and future. We, of the present, have a duty to pass on our common societal inheritance, intact, to future generations. To squander that inheritance is a violation of the contract.

As Burke said:

“They (meaning the present generation) should not think it among their rights … to commit waste upon the inheritance, by destroying at their pleasure the whole original fabric of their society; hazarding to those who come after them a ruin instead of a habitation.”

Burke believed in slow change. Left to her own devices, Mother Nature does things conservatively: keeping things in balance, requiring her charges to earn their own keep, looking out for the long term, and above all, not wasting anything.

It is unfortunate that the environment became a very polarized issue. As conservative commentator David Brooks noted in the New York Times,

“An oppositional mentality set in: if the liberals worried about global warming, it was necessary for conservatives to regard it as a hoax.” At its most extreme, some liberal/progressives see all Republicans as plunderers and pillagers, uninterested in protecting nature.

At the other end, some conservatives view all environmentalists as being against freedom: determined to destroy business enterprise and send us all back to living in caves.

I believe that we must return to a time when liberals and conservatives could air their differences in a calm and objective manner without resorting to name calling and shouting matches on talk radio. We must focus on the areas where we all agree and work in a bipartisan manner to resolve the areas where we don’t.

In that regard, we support the Obama administration’s efforts to reach out to Republicans, and we hope that a spirit of cooperation to resolve the issues which confront us can be achieved by our lawmakers.

Our nation’s landmark environmental laws, such as the Clean Air Act and the Wilderness Act, have stood the test of time in large part because they were passed with overwhelming bipartisan support.

Reducing greenhouse gas emissions by recommended amounts will take decades of sustained progress. In the words of REP’s Policy Director Jim DiPeso,

“We should strive to pass legislation that can endure, not just be enacted.”

Broad, bipartisan support will be essential for shaping climate change legislation with a reasonable chance of succeeding. By jamming through poorly vetted climate legislation on a party-line vote in an atmosphere of partisan rancor, Democrats — and their partners in the environmental community — would further polarize the issue and reduce the legislation’s ability to weather ever-shifting political winds.

As much as it may pain Democrats to admit it, their party has not cornered the market on sound ideas for stewardship. To effectively tackle climate change, and other environmental issues, we need all the bright ideas that we can muster from both sides of the aisle.

And there are some reasons for encouragement. Just this week, the House passed the Omnibus Public lands bill with the support of 38 Republicans, including Congressman Lamar Smith of Texas. And also this week, Republican Senator Lamar Alexander introduced, along with Democratic Senator Ben Cardin, a bill that would amend the Clean Water Act to prevent dumping of excess waste rock, dirt and vegetation into streams and rivers during the coal mining process. (You know, maybe what we need is to elect more guys named Lamar!)

Well, let’s shift gears now and talk about the topic of the hour: energy. There’s a good reason that energy is the theme of this conference, because energy touches every aspect of our lives. It has an impact on how we live, how we eat, how we move around, and how we relate to other countries.

If we get energy policy wrong, we’ll get a lot of things wrong. We will endanger our security, put our recovering economy further at risk, and ultimately, undermine the natural life support systems upon which we depend.

On the other hand, if we get energy policy, right, we’ll get a lot of things right. We will be safer, we will have a foundation on which to build sustainable prosperity, and we will be better stewards of the natural capital that supports our civilization.

It won’t be easy. There are no magic bullets. But we can figure this out without finding ourselves deadlocked in partisan debate. As Republicans, we must embrace the environment as an issue, not run away from it as we often have in the recent past.

We Republicans should be this nation’s acknowledged environmental leaders, because we know how markets work.

  • We know that entrepreneurship and new technology, not bureaucratic red tape, will deliver the innovation needed for Americans to be better stewards.
  • We know that we owe our children a country and a world that are at least as clean and healthy as those we inherited from our parents.
  • We know that managing our resources wisely will strengthen our national defense.
  • We know that there can be no greater cause than securing a safe and prosperous future where freedom can thrive and free people can pursue their dreams.

But to be better stewards of creation, we need more than programs and policies. We need to rediscover and rejuvenate our conservation ethic. We need to revive and reconnect a healthy, civil political culture. And we need to elect Republicans who understand that conservation and environmental protection are not a liberal or conservative issues, but transcendent human concerns that are rooted in both liberal and conservative traditions.

For example, Michael Williams, who is running on the GOP side for the US Senate, gets it on energy and the environment. He understands that we can have a strong economy and a healthy environment. While REP has not yet made an endorsement in that race, Michael Williams is one of the candidates we are watching closely.

It’s no secret that there has been a lot of debate taking place within the Republican Party since the staggering losses we endured in the November elections. A growing number of us recognize that we must do more to attract young voters into our ranks. Data from Republican pollsters indicates that the younger generation of Republicans is very concerned about the environment and agrees that we must address these issues in a constructive manner.

And there are other pockets of support within the party rank and file as well.

  • Outdoorsmen want to see the protection of wildlife habitat.
  • Suburban soccer moms and dads want their children to grow up with clean air to breathe.
  • Rural Americans don’t want their land overtaken by unattractive urban sprawl.
  • And growing numbers of evangelical Christians are embracing the concept of creation care.

Increasingly stronger voices within our party are challenging our party leaders to do more to address environmental issues. Republican thought leaders like David Frum and Ross Douthat are just a few, and I would encourage you to read some of their work.

We in REP are very encouraged that more and more of our party’s leaders recognize the importance of the environment as an issue. We are dedicated to electing more green Republicans at every level of government.

I would like to leave you today with a quote from another of my favorite contemporary conservative thinkers, Rod Dreher, editorial columnist for the Dallas Morning News.

Dreher wrote:

“It’s not easy being a green conservative, but if we conservatives want to be true to our principles, we have to move in that direction. It is morally right. It is religiously correct. It is economically prudent. It strengthens national defense. And it makes a better world for our children, and our children’s children.”

Thank you very much.

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