Decision 2008: Finding a True Conservative on Climate Change

By DAVID JENKINS, REP’s government affairs director

AN HISTORICAL DOCUMENT: Dave delivered this speech to the Power Shift Conference in College Park, Maryland, on November 3, 2007.


Good morning.

I imagine some of you are thinking that my organization, Republicans for Environmental Protection, sounds a bit like an oxymoron. But really, it’s not. There have been Republican environmental champions throughout our nation’s history, stretching from Abraham Lincoln, who first protected the Yosemite Valley, to current climate champ Arnold Schwarzenegger.

The GOP presidents who most often come to mind when talking about the environment are Theodore Roosevelt, for his land preservation accomplishments, and Richard Nixon, for establishing the Environmental Protection Agency, and for signing the Clean Air Act and the Endangered Species Act into law.

Roosevelt led on environmental issues because he was passionate about nature, and because he was a traditional conservative in the mold of Edmund Burke, the British statesman credited with founding modern conservatism.

Burke was very mindful of our stewardship responsibility, pointing out that society’s current members are only “temporary possessors” who have no right to “commit waste” on the inheritance of those who come after them.

For Nixon, environmental protection was more of a pragmatic concern stemming from the public’s growing frustration with pollution. He saw the environment as a way to politically unite the American people and stay on the right side of history. Of course, as we know, Nixon still managed to end up on the wrong side of history—albeit for entirely different reasons.

Stewardship and conservatism are supposed to be synonymous, but in recent years too many of those who claim to be conservative have led the Republican Party down a dead end road when it comes to environmental policy. Nowhere is this truer than with the health of our climate.

Some within our ranks still refuse to even acknowledge that there is a problem; others are in denial about the role played by burning fossil fuels. As those positions have become increasingly untenable, the new fallback position for climate foot-draggers is to focus exclusively on voluntary incentives and oppose firm emissions caps.

So against that backdrop, let’s look at the leading contenders for the Republican presidential nomination in the context of climate leadership.

While most of the Republican presidential hopefuls acknowledge that global warming is real, and that in itself represents progress, so far only two of the candidates, Senator John McCain and former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee have come out in favor of a mandatory cap on carbon emissions.

The current front-runner in the polls, Rudy Giuliani, agrees that global warming is real and that man contributes to it. He talks about energy efficiency, alternative fuels, and voluntary incentives. However, he is clearly opposed to a mandatory cap on carbon. In response to a question on the subject, Giuliani said:

“I don’t like the word mandatory—I like the idea of goals—you only do mandates when you absolutely, absolutely, absolutely have too, even then you should kind of delay from doing them and try to figure out another way.”

Mitt Romney, for his part, has passed the buck on climate leadership, saying that the U.S. should not reduce its carbon emissions unless China and India do the same. He does favor a shift towards alternative sources of energy but also wants to pursue expanded domestic oil drilling.

Fred Thompson, when he is not talking about oil drilling in the Everglades, has alternated between ridiculing global warming and saying it is an issue we need to “take seriously.” Earlier this year he pointed out that the Martian ice cap was melting and sarcastically speculated that it was due to “alien SUV-driving industrialists.”

Thompson has, to his credit, voiced support for investment in alternative fuels and research into technologies that reduce carbon emissions. But he also says that he wants to keep all options on the table with respect to domestic oil drilling, and based on his Everglades comment, he does indeed mean ALL options.

Mike Huckabee’s position on climate change has been quickly evolving, albeit a bit unevenly. He has the unique distinction of favoring a mandatory cap on carbon emissions, while still being reluctant to acknowledge man’s role in global warming.

However, Huckabee correctly points out that minimizing all pollution is a moral issue—and he believes that we have responsibility to God to be good stewards and to leave the world a better place for future generations.

A few weeks ago in New Hampshire, Huckabee said:
“We have a responsibility to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, to conserve energy, to find alternative forms of energy that are renewable and sustainable and environmentally friendly.”

Huckabee also supports increasing the fuel economy standards for automobiles, as does the next guy I am going to talk about.

The one candidate in the Republican field who truly stands out as a leader on climate policy is Senator John McCain. His long record of swimming upstream to move climate legislation forward is one of the reasons our organization recently endorsed him for president.
McCain has done more than just say the right things, or vote the right way. He has exercised real leadership.
McCain is the lead author of the Climate Stewardship Act, a cap and trade bill that would reduce greenhouse gas emissions 67 percent by 2050. He has been introducing this bill since 2003 and, in the face of opposition by his own party leaders, used his political capital to secure numerous votes on the bill.

His leadership didn’t stop there. To build support for climate legislation, Senator McCain undertook an intensive effort to educate his colleagues in both the Senate and the House about climate change and mankind’s role. He has taken skeptical senators and representatives to the ends of the earth, including Antarctica, Alaska, Greenland, and New Zealand, to change their minds on this issue.
I maintain that no presidential candidate, Republican or Democrat, has done more to move this nation forward towards an effective response to global warming than John McCain.

McCain understands the nexus between energy security and climate protection. He also understands the truly conservative notions of conservation and stewardship. In his energy security speech a few months ago, McCain said this:

“Some urge we do nothing because we can’t be certain how bad the problem might become or they presume the worst effects are most likely to occur in our grandchildren’s lifetime. I’m a proud conservative, and I reject that kind of live-for-today, ‘me generation,’ attitude. It is unworthy of us and incompatible with our reputation as visionaries and problem solvers. Americans have never feared change. We make change work for us.”

Let me wrap up by suggesting to you that it is the outcome of the Republican primary that is most critical for the future of our planet.

There is not a great deal of difference between major Democrat candidates on the climate issue. But on the Republican side, there are significant differences, and the wrong choice could further delay solutions that are already long overdue.

The political landscape right now may appear to favor the Democrats, but you can never be sure how an election will turn out, or which issues will carry the day.

So, we need to ensure that in November of 2008, Americans are choosing between two party nominees who are both seriously committed to climate leadership—and who will sign into law the mandatory emissions reductions that we all know are absolutely necessary.

Nixon once said something that is particularly relevant now as we push for political leadership to address global warming. He said:

“Restoring nature to its natural state is a cause beyond party and beyond factions. It has become a common cause of all the people of this country. It is a cause of particular concern to young Americans, because they more than we will reap the grim consequences of our failure”

Regardless of which party controls the White House, another four years of foot-dragging is simply not an option.

Thank you.