Whither Republican Leadership on the Environment?

Categories: Climate Change, International Relations

Climate change is back on the radar of the presidential election, but this time as a punchline.  As is probably well known at this point, Romney gave a speech at the Republican National Convention in which he and the delegates vocally ridiculed the idea that climate change is a problem.  The video is available below:

This may seem like yet another example of the GOP, as an institution, rejecting well-established climate science.  For example, the only GOP presidential candidate last year to admit that anthropogenic climate change existed was Jon Huntsman, who never rose about the double digits in support.  And then, of course, even he went ‘squishy’ in his position in a speech at the Heritage Foundation, where he invoked the East Anglia Climate-gate controversy, calling for more thumb-twiddling until climate scientists could get “a better description” of the problem.

Of course, recalcitrance in the face of climate change management is not a partisan issue.  Famously, the Byrd-Hagel Resolution which handcuffs the US Executive branch from committing to any international treaty that does not bind developing nations (and preventing US ratification of Kyoto) is a bipartisan agreement.  But climate change denialism seems to be largely a Republican practice – and this in the face of ever mounting evidence from the IPCC that, yes, anthropogenic climate change exists, and is a threat to global security.

But it wasn’t always so.  One of the most vexing issues in the American political system, is that environmentalism has, in the past, had Republican support.  Some of the lead agencies responsible for managing environmental issues, the EPA, and the Council on Environmental Quality (as well as milestone acts, such as the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts) were created either under President Nixon, not known as one sympathetic to the Democratic Party, or with Republican support.  This local environmentalism was but one part of a growing international environmental movement, as only a few years later, the UN held the Stockholm Convention on the Human Environment in 1972.

Sadly, of course, this changed dramatically in the anti-regulatory climate of the Reagan administration, with the appointment of Anne Gorsuch to head the EPA.  While Gorsuch’s tenure was mercifully brief, and despite later environmental triumphs, such as the ratification of the Montreal Protocol (under Reagan!), the damage had already been done.  Anti-environmentalism and anti-regulation had become such a central plank to the GOP platform, that we are left with the fact that what should be a straightforward debate about cause-and-effect has become highly polarized and prone to gridlock.

It is clear at this point, that a GOP presidency will likely mean a 4-year hiatus on any environmental regulatory progress, if not an outright reversal of what gains have been made to date.  The problem, of course, is that while environmental policymaking is partisan, environmental degradation is not.

About Kemi Fuentes-George

I am a professor in environmental studies and political science at Middlebury College.