Puget Sound Conservatives

By JIM DIPESO, REP’s policy director

AN HISTORICAL DOCUMENT: Jim delivered this speech to the Puget Sound Conservatives Association in Redmond,Washington, on September 21, 2004.


Good evening, it’s a pleasure being here. In particular, I want to thank Maury Miller for planting the bug to invite me tonight.

I am the policy director of Republicans for Environmental Protection. Why were we founded and what are we trying to accomplish? I need to lay some groundwork.

So, let’s start with some audience participation. I’m going to say a word and I’d like anyone who wishes to tell me the first thing that comes into your mind when you hear that word. Don’t think about it, just give me an instant reaction.


OK. Here is the word: “Environmentalist.” Quickly, what comes into your mind?

Very good. Thank you.

Now, I notice that none of you used the word “conservative.”

Or “conservatism.”

Or anything similar.

I am here to offer you an invitation — to think about reclaiming the environment as an issue where conservatives make positive contributions that are taken seriously and to engage Americans of other political persuasions in constructive debate over practical, effective solutions that are consistent with traditional conservative values.

You may disagree with some of what I am about to say. Maybe you’ll even get a little upset. That is not my intent, but sometimes that is the result of honest discourse on political issues that tend to push our buttons. If, at the end of the evening, we all have a few new things to think about, then the evening will have been a success.

Let’s start with some history. Everyone here knows that Theodore Roosevelt was the greatest environmental president in our nation’s history. The Olympic Mountains we see to the west are part of his legacy. In 1908, Roosevelt used the Antiquities Act to establish the Mount Olympus National Monument, which later was re-designated by Congress as Olympic National Park.

The Olympics were part of TR’s legacy, which included 18 national monuments, 130 million acres of national forests, 5 national parks, and 55 bird and game reservations that became the nucleus of today’s system of national wildlife refuges, which are found in all 50 states.

TR had a lifelong interest in wildlife and natural history. But his environmental record was based on much more than just personal interest. He believed and stated many times that efficient stewardship of America’s natural resources was critical for keeping America strong and prosperous for many years to come. That’s what Roosevelt meant when he said that conservation is our patriotic duty.

Roosevelt often is described as a progressive. But his policies stemmed from conservative roots. One of his motivations was that he was concerned about the rise of socialism. His goal was to protect our system of market capitalism from its own excesses. He knew then, as we know today, that market capitalism works best when it works within boundaries that are enforced by tradition, practice, and by law.

We remember and celebrate Roosevelt’s achievements, but the roots of his thinking go back much earlier. Let’s go back to the 18th century and briefly re-visit the work of Edmund Burke, a British statesman and philosopher. He is sometimes called the father of modern conservatism.

One of Burke’s central ideas was that society is an intergenerational contract. The present generation has a duty to secure the achievements of the past generations for the benefit of future generations. From that insight, you can see that freedom is inseparably coupled to responsibility. Freedom without responsibility is license. And, you can draw a line from Burke’s ideas directly to Theodore Roosevelt saying that conservation is our patriotic duty.

Now, let’s jump ahead a half century to 1956. In July of that year, Congressman John Saylor, a conservative Republican from Johnstown, Pennsylvania, took to the floor of the House and spoke eloquently in favor of protecting wilderness areas.

Saylor talked about national defense. He worried that the failure to balance material affluence with challenging experiences in the wild would cause Americans to “soften into an easy-going people deteriorating in luxury and ripening for the hardy conquerors of another century.”

Saylor talked about regaining perspective and humility. He said: “In the wilderness, we can get our bearings. We can keep from getting blinded in our great human success to the fact that we are part of the life of this planet, and we would do well do keep our perspectives and keep in touch with some of the basic facts of life.”

Thanks to John Saylor’s hard work, the Wilderness Act passed 40 years ago with overwhelming support from Republicans and Democrats.

When Saylor talked about humility, he was touching on one of the cardinal virtues of conservatism – prudence. In one of the last books published by conservative author Russell Kirk, he counseled us to act with caution and deliberation, and to think through the long-term consequences of our actions, because we are all fallible and imperfect.

Last night, I went to a lecture by Philip Gold, a conservative who has written a provocative book called Take Back the Right. I bought the book last night, so I haven’t had a chance to read it yet. But one of the points he made was that our decisions must be made with prudential wisdom.

So, with that historical backdrop, let’s move forward to today.

What do the writings of Edmund Burke, the actions of Theodore Roosevelt, and the thinking of a mostly forgotten congressman named John Saylor have to do with the environmental issues we face today?

Let’s first define what the environment is. The environment is much more than pretty birds or picturesque mountains. The environment is the necessary infrastructure that supports the way we live. It is a stock of natural capital, if you will, that pays dividends in the form of essential services that we cannot live without and for which engineered substitutes are either unavailable or come with a very high pricetag.

Those services include water filtration and storage, crop pollination, topsoil formation and fertility, and climate stability.

Let me talk a bit about that last service. Since the glaciers retreated, we have been blessed by a remarkably stable climate that enabled us to learn agriculture and produce a food surplus, which in turn led to the rise of urban settlements, writing, technology, market capitalism, and democracy.

So, let’s talk about one of the most controversial environmental issues of our time — global warming or climate change, if you like.

If you get all your information from television or other conventional news media, no one could blame you for concluding that the jury on this issue is still out, that scientists are divided on the question, and that we should do more research before we do anything else.

Well, as the old saying goes, you can’t believe everything you read in the newspapers. The media has not reported this story very well because the media, with a few exceptions, generally doesn’t report science very well. The preponderance of the scientific evidence is that human activities are at least partly responsible for rising global temperatures. We are emitting carbon dioxide and other gases that act like a blanket and trap heat.

This is not a belief. This is physics.

You can delve into the Internet and find the reports, from the National Academy of Sciences, from numerous universities, institutions and specialists that have been studying this problem for decades. It’s real – complicated, yes – but real.

When we add heat energy to the atmosphere, we’re playing around with a complex system that could react in ways that are both costly and unpleasant. For example, in the Northwest, more heat will mean less snow. Less snow means less water in the summer, because the winter snowpack is our free storage reservoir — one of those free natural services I mentioned earlier.

Tampering with complex systems is like poking a stick at a grizzly bear. You don’t know how or when he’ll react, but you’re taking serious risks. By emitting carbon dioxide and other heat-trapping gases, we are taking serious risks. We are not being prudent. We are not thinking about long-term consequences that will affect the unborn. We are not being conservative.

But you wouldn’t know that from listening to cable TV screaming matches. Global warming is an example of a political problem we have today. Environmental issues, along with many other issues, are framed in polarizing terms. The basic rap is that all liberals care about the environment, all conservatives don’t. All liberals see environmental problems, all conservatives see doom-mongering. All liberals have solutions, all conservatives have complaints.

This kind of oversimplification may be great for building ratings on cable news programs. But it’s not good for our country because polarization, sloganeering, and stereotyping are not conducive to practical problem-solving.

Which is where REP comes in. We have several goals.

First, we seek to re-acquaint our Republican leaders and Americans in general with a piece of their history.

Republicans were the original environmental leaders and Republicans have a rich conservation heritage. Many of the party’s leaders seem to have forgotten that history and have allowed conservatives to be portrayed as uncaring about the environment.

Our leaders have forgotten how to talk about the environment, with the clarity, insight, and inspiration with which Theodore Roosevelt talked about this critical issue a century ago. They have to learn to talk about this issue again in ways that are earnest, not patronizing, engaging, not defensive.

Here is an example:

Some may say pollution is a necessary price of progress, or that demanding pollution reductions interferes with the free market. We see it differently. We see pollution as an attack on individual freedom. The invasion of your body by harmful substances without your consent. is an infringement upon your freedom. Those who inflicted the harm must be held responsible for their actions.

Second, we seek to foster an environment where conservatives are encouraged to get into the game… to talk about serious environmental problems and propose serious solutions.

Conservatives have a lot of good ideas to contribute. Let’s talk about markets. Markets are the best vehicles for allocating resources and encouraging enterprise that have ever been developed. They work most efficiently when the rules of the game require players to pay their own costs, rather than shift their costs.

In 1990, when the Clean Air Act was being rewritten, President George H.W. Bush proposed something new: a market-based plan that, in essence, gave utilities an economic incentive to reduce sulfur dioxide emissions that cause acid rain and various health problems. The plan worked. Emissions have fallen at costs lower than anyone, including the utilities, had predicted.

Essentially, the law changed the rules of the market game. The utilities had a greater incentive to reduce pollution and its attendant costs, rather than shift those costs onto innocent third-parties, like kids with asthma.

This and similar market-based approaches could be used successfully in many areas – to further clean up the air, lower carbon dioxide emissions, improve energy efficiency, and accelerate the spread of safe, clean and reliable energy technologies that will keep the air and water clean and reduce our increasingly dangerous dependence on oil. Market-based approaches are not a complete answer, but they should have a prominent role.

Markets can help us solve these problems — with the right set of standards and the right policies in place to point market forces toward the goals that a democratic society has agreed upon.

For conservative ideas about the environment to be taken seriously, the conservative commitment to environmental problem solving must be taken seriously. That will mean re-framing the issues, to show that conservative values and good stewardship complement each other.

Show people that taking good care of the environment will expand freedom, increase prosperity, strengthen our nation’s security, and perhaps most important of all, truly care for the unborn by making sure that they can enjoy the blessings of our way of life.

Conservation is conservative.