Reclaiming Environmental Leadership

By JIM DIPESO, REP policy director

AN HISTORICAL DOCUMENT: Jim delivered this speech to the Republican Leadership Council’s California Leadership Weekend in Buellton, California, on July 14, 2007.


Thank you, it’s a pleasure being here.

I am 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, and boy, do we get it coming and going.

On the one hand, hard-core liberal partisans get miffed and very territorial. They shout,

“Hey! The environment is our issue. You’re 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. “Environment? 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 own the environmental issue. It was ours and should be ours again. Not in the way that our Democrat friends would like. But in a way that makes sense for our nation’s security, our economy, and our quality of life.

That’s Republicans for Environmental Protection’s message, that conservation is conservative and ought to be a central part of the GOP’s vision for our country.

We’ve been at this for more than 10 years. We’re seeing some signs of progress, which I’ll get to later. First, a little background, past and present.

Everyone here knows that, except for the big guy in the smoking tent outside the state Capitol, Republicans are not doing well here in California. The state where Ronald Reagan honed his great conservative message of freedom, strength and hope has been rinsed in a deep shade of blue.

Part of the formula for being more competitive in California and other states that are bluish to middlin’ purple is to convince voters that Republicans care about the environment, but have some different ideas about how to meet important goals such as clean air, clean water, and protecting special places for our children.

It’s hard to imagine that anyone would not share those goals. But of late, Republicans have not been very good at articulating how to achieve them.

A few months ago, I attended a Mainstream Republicans event in Seattle, where I live. One of the breakout sessions was just like this one, on how Republicans can talk about the environment.

One of the speakers was Jim Waldo, a long-time mainstream Republican in Washington State, former candidate for governor, and a leading troubleshooter on natural resources policy. He said Republicans tend to mumble when it comes to the environment.

Jim Waldo’s advice:

“Stop mumbling!”

Whether we mumble or seem downright hostile, the perception has taken hold that Republicans don’t care. Of course, that’s wrong, but as we all know in politics, perception is everything and reality is an unwelcome in-law.

There are several reasons for this. Let me describe one that Newt Gingrich talked about in his climate change debate with John Kerry a few months ago.

Newt really put his finger on it. He explained that conservatives shy away from environmental leadership because of what they fear it will lead to:

  • more bureaucracy
  • more dumb regulation
  • more unnecessary costs
  • more government intrusion in people’s lives.

Unfortunately, the means have become conflated with the ends.

Part of our job is to pry them apart and show that our means are a better way to achieve good ends.


First, we have to do a better job of telling the Grand Old Party’s story. We were the original conservationists. All of us, of course, are proud of the achievements of Theodore Roosevelt, the greatest conservationist in American history. He saved a great many places, including lands here in Santa Barbara County.

TR loved birds and wildlife, and during his lifetime 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 TR’s personal interests were not the most important reason that TR was a great conservationist. The most important reason was that he was convinced that protecting our natural heritage was good for America.

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. And TR didn’t make this stuff up. His language arose from a deeply rooted conservative tradition that goes back many, many years.

The great British statesman and conservative thinker, Edmund Burke, described society as an intergenerational contract: what we inherited from the past is in our safekeeping and it is our duty to pass on that inheritance, healthy and vibrant, to the next generation.

Russell Kirk was one of Ronald Reagan’s favorite conservative authors. Kirk asked rhetorically, who cares about posterity? He answered:

“A voice that is not the demand of self-interest or pure rationality says 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.”

As Margaret Thatcher once said:

“No generation has a freehold on this Earth. All we have is a life tenancy with a full repairing lease.”

Now, some of our Democrat friends would say that Theodore Roosevelt was an outlier, an exception, who wasn’t a, quote, typical Republican.

Well, that’s wrong. There have been many other Republican heroes, some well known, others less so.

Herbert Hoover. Yes, the great engineer, a marvelously qualified man who was burdened with an economic calamity that was not of his making. He expanded our national park system by 40 percent. Why? Because he believed that it was important to provide opportunities for outdoor recreation as an antidote to excessive materialism. That comes straight out of traditional conservative thinking.

Congressman John Saylor. He fought to protect wilderness because he believed it was a matter of national defense. In experiencing wilderness, Saylor said, Americans would acquire the mental and physical toughness that we must have to prevail against our enemies.

Richard Nixon. He understood the environment’s importance to the public. It was Nixon’s initiative that brought us landmark legislation such as the Clean Air Act.

Senator Howard Baker, who made the Clean Air Act possible. Two years ago, Senator Baker pointed to that law as his proudest legacy.

And of course, Ronald Reagan, who as both California’s governor and as our president did much more for the environment than he has been given credit for:

  • Protection of Lake Tahoe
  • Ten million acres of new wilderness areas
  • Energy efficiency standards for appliances
  • Negotiating the successful treaty to phase out chemicals that harm our atmosphere’s protective ozone layer

Reagan understood TR’s thinking about keeping America strong by protecting its environment.

As President Reagan said in 1986,

“A strong nation is one that is loved by its people and, as Edmund Burke put it, for a country to be loved, it ought to be lovely.”

So, we have a rich 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. The history is all well and good, critics will say, but what have you done for us lately?

We have to connect that story to today’s issues and today’s politics. How might we do that?

Let’s take as an example the biggest and baddest environmental issue of them all: climate change.

First, let’s not waste time trying to prove Al Gore wrong. Let’s show that we care more about good stewardship than Gore claims to.

The second thing to do is take the advice of National Review’s recent cover story. We’ve painted ourselves into a corner and we need regain the initiative. Trying to impeach climate science is a weak platform for joining what is actually a debate about policy.
Instead, let’s get into the game with ideas for conservative climate and energy solutions that open new opportunities for growing the economy and lowering our dangerous overdependence on oil. Show people that we care.

But instead of bureaucratic solutions, let’s talk about using the power of market capitalism to solve the problem.

Essentially, we need to think about energy the way we do about investments. Conservative is best for the long haul, and that means diversification. More renewables, maybe more nuclear power, maybe more coal if we can figure out how to bury the carbon. Above all, a lot more efficiency.

Many of you, especially those of you planning to run for office, may worry that a willingness to champion global warming solutions will put you too far ahead of rank-and-file Republicans.

Maybe a year ago, that would have been the case, but not so much now. The debate seems to be shifting. In January, Republican pollster Whit Ayres did a survey of GOP voters in reliably Republican South Carolina. The results he found were intriguing. More than half the respondents said global warming is occurring, and 81 percent favored action to reduce CO2 emissions from motor vehicles and stationary sources.

There is another poll that you should know about. After last year’s midterm election, the Zogby Company polled 20,000 voters. Half said global warming made a difference in determining whom they voted for.

In his analysis, John Zogby said:

“There are also signs that global warming may be eroding support for Republicans among religious voters. Looking ahead, politicians in both parties ignore this issue at their peril.”

Sooner or later, we will have a national climate policy. Senior military experts, retired generals and admirals, have published a report warning that climate change could be a threat multiplier that exacerbates instability in the world’s trouble spots.
Leaders of great American companies like GE, PG&E, and DuPont want clear rules so that they can compete hard in the burgeoning markets for new energy technologies. California and other states are moving forward with their own policies, to capture some of that business.

We need to be at the table to make sure those policies are economically sound and deliver tangible benefits. As Duke Energy CEO Jim Rogers likes to say, if you’re not at the table, you’re on the menu.

Finally, as we present our conservative ideas, we must be positive and solutions-oriented. If you analyze polling studies about citizens’ environmental attitudes, you often find that people want a sense of hope, that if we’re smart and work hard, we can fix environmental problems.

That longing is wired deeply into our American culture. Partly, I think it’s the outgrowth of America’s wilderness heritage. We’ve learned how to confront forbidding obstacles and find ways under, through, or around them.

That’s why people admire successful American business leaders. It’s not so much that they make a lot of money, it’s that they have a genius for developing and marketing products and services that improve people’s lives.

I think that’s part of Governor Schwarzenegger’s popular appeal. It’s not that he has all the answers, it’s that he conveys an infectious attitude that we can find the answers if we put our minds to it.

And if down the road we find that the climate scientists have somehow made a colossal blunder and global warming is not an issue, we will have grown our economy and strengthened our defenses.

Most importantly, will have become better stewards and as such, better conservatives. We will have embraced a cause bigger than ourselves. There can be no greater cause than securing a safe and prosperous future where freedom can thrive and people can pursue their dreams.

Let me close with a quote from conservative commentator Rod Dreher:

“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.