The Environment and Our Health

By JIM DIPESO, REP’s Policy Director

AN HISTORICAL DOCUMENT: Jim addressed the Pennsylvania Institute for Children’s Health at Kutztown University, Kutztown, Pennsylvania on October 2, 2008.


Good evening. I am privileged and honored to be speaking with you tonight on campus.

About 750 miles west of here, another campus in St. Louis is getting to ready host the one and only debate between the vice presidential candidates, just two hours from now. Perhaps I can be a warm-up act for Governor Palin and Senator Biden by giving you some food for thought if you tune in to that debate.

My name is Jim DiPeso, and I’m the policy director of Republicans for Environmental Protection.

Republicans for Environmental Protection. Now, roll those words around in your head.

A lot of people do. Which means we get it from all sides.

On the one hand, Democratic partisans get miffed and very territorial.

“Hey!” they shout. “The environment is our issue. What are you doing working our side of the street? There’s no such thing as an environmentally concerned Republican.”

On the other hand, we get it from some of our more dogmatic Republican colleagues.

“Hey!” they shout. “What are you doing talking about the environment?” That’s not our issue. What are you doing hanging around with those weird environmentalists?”

Well, they’re both wrong. Republicans should take ownership of the environmental issue. Perhaps not in the way that our Democratic friends would like. But in a way that makes sense for our nation’s security, our economy, our health, and our quality of life. The debate we should have about environmental stewardship should be about how, not why.

Conservation is conservative. That ought to be a central part of the Republican Party’s vision for our country. That’s Republicans for Environmental Protection’s core message.

To understand where we want to go, it helps to know where we came from. Let me start by telling you how our group began, at the National 4H Headquarters in Chevy Chase, Maryland, in the spring of 1995. The club was the location for an environmental conference.

It was a small gathering, about 50 or so people. So, each of the attendees introduced themselves, including our founder, Dr. Martha Marks, who at the time was a county commissioner in Lake County, Illinois, north of Chicago. 

She proclaimed herself to be both concerned about the environment and to be a Republican. Immediately, nervous titters erupted.

You may recall that 1995 was the first year of the 104th Congress, when House Speaker Newt Gingrich was promising a revolution. Many environmental laws passed years earlier with bipartisan support were in the crosshairs of Newt’s more zealous revolutionaries.

In the women’s room at the National 4H Headquarters – now, mind you, I wasn’t there, I am told that this is what happened – others came up to Martha. They spoke sotto voce with a sideways glance. They said, real quietly,

“You know, I’m a Republican too.”

Martha and her new friends concluded that there was a real need for an organization of Republicans who care about the environment, who didn’t like the direction that the Congress was taking, and wanted to reclaim the party’s heritage as the party of Theodore Roosevelt.

Right then and there, Republicans for Environmental Protection was born. 

So, what were those in-the-closet, in-the-women’s-room Republicans doing at an environmental conference?

They were being good Republicans. They were being true to the stewardship ethic of traditional conservatism, as it was handed down to us by Edmund Burke and other great conservative thinkers of our past.

If it sounds odd to equate environmental protection with conservatism, that’s understandable. What often passes for conservatism today is an aberration. It’s a mind set that holds that man need never restrain his appetites, that the pursuit of material wealth is the primary purpose of human existence, that opulence is the highest measure of success, and that personal gratification trumps all.

Ironically, that hedonistic doctrine bears a striking resemblance to an attitude common among left-wing counterculturists in the 1960s, which was: If it feels good, do it.

That’s not real conservatism. Let’s talk about the real conservative tradition and get re-acquainted with it. 

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 breach 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.”

What Burke was getting at is that freedom has a symbiotic partner – responsibility. Ask any American what our nation stands for, and most will say “freedom.” We all cherish our nation’s freedoms, to speak as we please, worship as we wish, and to chart our own destinies.

Yet we exercise our freedom in a context, in a public space of culture and geography that gives our choices definition and value. We cannot truly enjoy freedom if that public space is made dangerous by the irresponsible choices of others. We must exercise our freedom responsibly, lest it become license.

Burke believed that the most sensible way of organizing society was to stick with long settled habits of mind and culture that have stood the test of time.

He held little confidence in utopian notions that this or that creed would bring paradise on earth. He did not oppose change, but his counsel was to be prudent about change. Look before you leap.

You can apply that to our relationship with nature, which has spent eons optimizing strategies and most intricate mechanisms imaginable for supporting a rich abundance of life. We tamper with that ancient legacy at our peril.

Another one of the great conservative thinkers was Russell Kirk, who was one of Ronald Reagan’s favorite authors.

Kirk had similar ideas as Burke about the impacts of self-indulgence on society. He once wrote:

“In America, an impression began to arise that the new industrial and acquisitive interests are the conservative interest, that conservatism is simply a political argument in defense of large accumulations of private property, that expansion, centralization, and accumulation are the tenets of conservatives. From this confusion, … the forces of tradition in the United States never have fully escaped.”

Kirk wrote that

“we have no right to give ourselves enjoyment at the expense of our ancestors’ memory and our descendants’ prospects. We hold our present advantages only in trust.”

To put it more succinctly, Kirk wrote in 1970:

“Nothing is more conservative than conservation.”

Protecting nature is consistent with traditional conservative ideas about what makes for an orderly and healthy society.

One of those ideas is appreciation of beauty. That was one of the roots of the American conservation movement. That was the forebear, later on, of a broader environmental movement that sprung from concerns about our expanding industrial society, its dependence on enormous quantities of energy, and its emissions of dangerous substances that tamper with the most basic machinery of life. I’ll talk more about that later.

The 19th century conservation movement was driven by reverence for beauty. You see it in the writings of the Transcendentalists, the poetry and paintings of that time. That movement included Republicans as leaders.

Let’s go back to 1864, when Abraham Lincoln, the first and greatest Republican president, protected Yosemite Valley as a place for recreation and public enjoyment. In those days, setting aside land as a public pleasuring ground was simply not done. Land was to be used – for growing crops, cutting timber, extracting minerals.

In this, as in so much else, Lincoln was a visionary.

Shortly after Lincoln protected Yosemite Valley, a landscape architect named Frederick Law Olmsted – the man who designed New York’s Central Park – studied this valley of stupendous cliffs, waterfalls, and trees. His report highlighted the importance of natural beauty to our physical, mental and emotional health. It’s quite a remarkable, almost visionary document.

Olmsted insisted that it is a democratic government’s duty to hold beautiful lands in trust so that all may enjoy its benefits, not just a privileged few.

Olmsted correctly predicted that in a century’s time, millions would visit Yosemite to refresh and reinvigorate themselves in the presence of its beauty.

The preservation of Yosemite Valley set the precedent for establishing other national parks. Today, our national parks number close to 400.

Parks were among the many achievements of the greatest conservationist ever to serve as president: Theodore Roosevelt.

From his earliest days, TR loved birds and wildlife. As a child, he created a natural history museum in his bedroom that was made up of specimens he found outdoors. The maid in the Roosevelt household, however, did not appreciate the pungent odors that wafted from his little museum.

During his lifetime, Theodore Roosevelt was considered one of the world’s foremost experts on large North American game mammals. Had he not gone into politics, he might have made his mark as a great natural historian.

But Roosevelt’s personal interests were not the only reason that he was a great conservationist. Perhaps the most important reason was that he was convinced that protecting our natural heritage was necessary for keeping America strong and prosperous.

He said, and I quote:

“Conservation is a great moral issue, for it involves the patriotic duty of ensuring the safety and continuance of the nation.”

Think about those words. Conservation is a moral responsibility. It is our patriotic duty. It will protect our country and keep it strong. Those are conservative values that we need to rediscover and embrace.

TR wasn’t the only great conservationist among Republicans. Calvin Coolidge and Herbert Hoover are hardly the first names that spring to mind when you think of conservation heroes.

But they followed precedents set by TR and used a very special law called the Antiquities Act to protect millions of acres of wildlands in the American West. During Q&A, if you like, I can talk more about the enormous conservation achievements that the Antiquities Act made possible.

Land protection issues expanded and evolved through the remainder of the 20th century and are still with us. I might add that Pennsylvanians were in the thick of the land protection battles. Howard Zahniser, who grew up along the banks of the Allegheny River, authored the Wilderness Act. Congressman John Saylor, a conservative Republican from Johnstown, was instrumental in getting it passed.

But, to borrow a phrase, change was coming to the conservation movement. The movement to set right our relations with nature was about to get a whole lot bigger. But first, to get some perspective, let’s return briefly to the 19th century.

Coal, including Pennsylvania coal, powered America’s rise to industrial might during those years. Coal fired the mills, factories, and coke ovens, powered the railroads, and heated our homes, offices, and factories.

Coal produced pollution levels that were literally breathtaking. You could see it, smell it, taste it, even feel it. America’s cities were filled with smoke that smudged our lungs, dirtied our clothes, and blotted out the sun. Pittsburgh was described as “hell with the lid taken off.”

The use of coal increased in the 20th century as the use of electricity became universal and transformed our country and way of life.

But with the rise of motor vehicles, coal gave way to oil as the most important source of energy in America. In the economic boom that followed the end of World War II, the first thing everyone wanted to do was to get a new car.

Patterns of pollution changed. The use of oil-based fuels and synthetic chemicals derived from oil brought novel toxins unknown to nature into contact with air, water, our bodies. Rachel Carson, a native of Allegheny County, wrote Silent Spring, a book that greatly raised public awareness of the hazards of synthetic chemicals.

The postwar expansion brought a level of prosperity that the world had never known before. But its shadow side was becoming all too apparent.

Air pollution changed the conservation movement. It brought the movement out of the remote West and straight into our homes, where it became better known as the environmental movement.

And you can argue that the shift started right here in Pennsylvania, in a mill town called Donora. On Halloween weekend in 1948, a toxic pall descended on Donora from coal-fired steel furnaces, coal-burning trains, and a four-mile-long zinc smelter. Twenty people died and thousands more were hospitalized that weekend.

On the other side of the continent, the fast growing metropolis of Los Angeles was becoming afflicted with a yellowish-brown haze that the locals called “smog.” A professor at Cal Tech figured out what it was — ozone — and fingered the culprit — cars. His insight became the scientific basis of today’s air quality standards.

On a hot July day in 1955, Los Angeles experienced the highest ozone level ever recorded. It was 680 parts per billion, nines times higher than the 8-hour standard that is enforced today.

I grew up in that yellowish-brown haze. In high school PE class, the boys periodically had to do the 12-minute run, one of a series of physical fitness tests. I still remember the soreness in my throat and chest from doing the 12-minute run on those smoggy days. I remember the radio announcements about the eye irritation that people outdoors could expect.

The smog came on hot days when inversions settled over the LA Basin. The glorious California sun cooked up all the hydrocarbons and nitrogen oxides, and turned it into ozone.

That unsightly band of ozone blotted out the views of the 10,000-foot San Gabriel Mountains only 10 to 15 miles north of where I grew up.

In 1969, under a Republican governor named Ronald Reagan, California established the nation’s first ambient air standards – legally enforceable benchmarks for how clean the air must be.

That set a precedent for federal action.

The following year, in an address submitted to Congress on New Year’s Day, President Richard Nixon proposed an unprecedented 37-point program for new laws to clean up the air and water and to protect our natural heritage. 

In his 1970 State of the Union address, Nixon declared: “Restoring nature to its natural state is a cause beyond party and beyond factions.”

Young people who were born long after Nixon’s troubled presidency came to an end may not be aware of the instrumental role that he played in establishing the framework of environmental laws that protect us today and that have done a great deal to make our air and water healthier.

The Clean Air Act, which ensures that never again will there be another Donora.

The Clean Water Act, which ensures that never again will the Cuyahoga River catch fire.

The National Environmental Policy Act, which codifies the conservative principle of prudence, to look before you leap.

Nixon, a Republican president, worked with a Democratic Congress to pass legislation on a greater good that transcends partisan politics.

Nixon established the Environmental Protection Agency, whose first administrator, William Ruckelshaus, made the decision to phase out lead from gasoline, one of the greatest public health victories in our history. Since the early 1970s, ambient lead levels in the air have fallen nearly 99 percent.

The Clean Air Act served as the foundation for follow-up achievements for environmental health.

One of the accomplishments that Ronald Reagan was most proud of during his presidency was negotiating the Montreal Protocol, a treaty to begin phasing out the cleaning and cooling chemicals that were linked to destruction of the protective ozone layer in the upper atmosphere.

Reagan’s administration was badly divided on this issue. But Reagan backed up his scientists and ordered his diplomats to negotiate the strongest possible treaty.

In 1990, President George H.W. Bush signed into law a much stronger Clean Air Act, which did many things. It toughened tailpipe standards for cars. It strengthened limits on power plant emissions, including a novel cap-and-trade approach for cutting sulfur dioxide pollution.

So, Republicans have a good story to tell and a proud tradition to reclaim. But telling that story will only get us so far. We’re bound to hear objections and we do.

The history is all well and good, critics say, but why has the environmental issue become so partisan?

Why do Republicans seem anti-environmental and uncaring about the impacts of pollution on health and on our natural heritage?

Those are good questions and fair criticisms.

There are a number of reasons why the bipartisan environmental consensus of the 1970s went off the rails.

Both parties became much more ideological and political disagreements have become much more personal. Long gone are the days when liberal Hubert Humphrey and conservative Barry Goldwater could argue vigorously on the Senate floor but after the close of business go off and enjoy dinner together as friends.

During his presidency, Ronald Reagan invited members of Congress from both parties over to the White House to enjoy cocktails and joke telling, only hours after battling over the great issues of the day.

It sounds like harmless fluff, but Reagan was shrewdly building social capital that made governance easier and more productive.

Today, the penalty for perceived apostasy from party dogmas is more severe. For the Republicans, here’s an explanation written earlier this year by David Brooks, a conservative commentator with the NY Times:


…a great tightening occurred. Conservative institutions and interest groups proliferated in Washington. The definition of who was a true conservative narrowed. It became necessary to pass certain purity tests.

“An oppositional mentality set in: if the liberals worried about global warming, it was necessary to regard it as a hoax.

“Apostates and deviationists were expelled or found wanting, and the boundaries of acceptable thought narrowed. Moderate Republicans were expelled for squishiness. Millions of coastal suburbanites left the party in disgust.


Likewise, Democrats became more rigid and more unforgiving of political incorrectness. Unwittingly or not, they conflated environmental concerns with liberal orthodoxies about giving government more power over our lives.

Republicans came to fear that environmental stewardship was one more way for Democrats to impose rules, regulations, and regimentation on individuals and on businesses. Last year, in a debate between John Kerry and Newt Gingrich, Newt said that Republicans aren’t hostile to the environment, but they fear what environmental protection will mean.

So, here we are, about to enter the climactic drama of a presidential campaign that has gone on for what seems like forever.

Let me digress by telling you how much I envy our neighbor to the north. Canada’s national election campaign to choose a prime minister began three weeks ago. Election Day there is October 14. In other words, what takes us the better part of two years, our Canadian friends can get done in five weeks.

Whoever is chosen as our president and elected to Congress in our election November 4 will have a plate full of issues to contend with. It will be time for us to come together, once again, as one country, and try to think more about what unites us rather than rehash what divides us.

What unites us is the natural heritage that nourishes our lives and sustains our civilization. There are no Republican rivers and there are no Democratic forests. The air and water take no notice of political affiliations.

Every mother and every father wants their children to have a fair chance of reaching their full potential. That can only come with a clean and safe environment.

The laws passed with the support of Republicans and Democrats have done much to make America a safer, healthier place for our children. But we have so much yet left to do.

Here’s an example: Bisphenol-A is the material used to produce shatterproof polycarbonate plastics. Bisphenol-A is only the latest strange sounding chemical that may be adding unwanted, disruptive ingredients into the biochemical recipes that drive the basic processes of life at the cellular level.

While the evidence is not 100 percent definitive, there is enough known about bisphenol-A’s impacts to warrant a prudent response to protect children’s health. Wal-Mart and other merchants are already ahead of the government by promising to remove from their shelves baby products that contain this substance.

Air pollution remains with us. We can be proud of what we have accomplished. Factories can no longer discharge pollutants wantonly on a dark Halloween weekend.

Today’s cars are vastly cleaner than the cars that created the yellowish-brown hazes of my youth. Yet there is more to do, to scrub the air of the ozone that scars lungs, the fiendishly small particles that can stop hearts, and the mercury that addles young brains.

And then there is climate change, the elephant in the living room. It will affect the health and prospects of all of us, from you in Berks County to people you will never see on the other side of the world.

To get a handle on climate change, we must rewire an energy system that, for many historical reasons, locked itself into fossil fuel technologies in which a great deal, trillions of dollars, has been invested. Reconfiguring our energy system will be one of the greatest tasks facing our country in the 21st century.

We will have to find new, cleaner, more secure and more diverse energy sources for powering our civilization, and above all we must use that energy much more efficiently.

All of us, Republicans and Democrats, must be at the table debating the solutions. If those solutions are passed on party line votes, they will not work and they will not last.

We must untangle the environment from the ideological knots in which it has been twisted.

The environment should not be viewed primarily through ideological prisms. First and foremost, the environment is a matter of practical household management. If you have a leak in the roof, you go up and fix it – you don’t try to convince the rest of the family that the puddle building up on the living room floor isn’t really there.

We must help people understand science – what science is telling us, but more importantly, how science works.

We must learn to talk about the environment in the language of middle America.

We must be compelling, but not gloomy. We must offer hope, but not pie in the sky. We must be true to our consciences, but not extreme.

From the political left, we need a greater willingness to consider market-based solutions. The market is not a deity beyond human influence. But markets are useful tools that can spur innovation and creativity at reduced cost.

From the political right, we need a greater willingness to consider property in a broader context. The right to use and enjoy property must be protected. But property rights do not exist in a vacuum. We all have neighbors who deserve consideration. And we all depend on the natural commons for our sustenance.

We don’t have much time to get this right. The pressures that we are imposing on ecosystems that provide us with essential services are building. But it is our ethical responsibility to try – Republicans and Democrats, conservatives and liberals. Our health and that of those who will follow depends on it.

As a great conservative named Margaret Thatcher once said:

“None of us has a freehold on this Earth. All we have is a life tenancy with a full repairing lease.”

Thank you.