Environmental Conservatism? Just Another Name For Capitalism First, Planet Last

“We’re giving conservatives a voice on the environment.” That’s the message of The American Conservation Coalition (ACC). I came across the group after it released a new “national” poll that claimed to find broad support for “all of the above” energy, electricity reform. After being on the hot end of criticism for a previous article I wrote based on a survey about generational conservation practices, I made sure this time to study the environmental conservatism of the ACC methodology before I wrote. Boy, was I glad I did.

“The poll was conducted by Public Opinion Strategies (POS), one of the nation’s top GOP polling firms. POS surveyed 400 18-24 year-old likely voters across the nation from February 10-14, 2018. The margin of error for this survey is +/- 4.9%.”

400 total respondents, they said, comprised a national sample. A nearly 5% margin of error could sway the results in the opposite direction. Nope, that wouldn’t work. To me, with two whole courses in statistics under my belt (whoohoo!), I knew that this survey wasn’t statistically significant — especially if it were to be considered indicative of the diverse population that makes up the US.

Who comprises the ACC? They seemed to find these survey results illuminating and accurate. Hmm.

How Republicans Perceive Climate Change in 2018

In January, 2018, Mother Jones admonished us progressives that there actually is “a small but growing alliance of concerned conservatives who want to reclaim climate change as a nonpartisan issue. This motley crew of lobbyists, Evangelical Christians, and far-right radicals call themselves the ‘eco-right.’” The article went on to describe how some conservative groups have been traveling across the country to persuade other conservatives that their principles and values can be applied to curbing greenhouse gas emissions. This is good news, right?

I realize that the intransigence of many Republicans about climate change continues to be alarming. A March, 2018 Gallup Poll found that:

  • 69% of Republicans think the seriousness of global warming is generally exaggerated;
  • 34% of Republicans believe effects of global warming have already begun;
  • 35% of Republicans believe global warming is caused by human activities; and,
  • 18% of Republicans think global warming will pose a serious threat in their lifetime.

Gallup concedes that climate change, like many other issues, has increasingly become politically polarized due to a variety of factors, including Trump’s claim that global warming is a “hoax,” the US withdrawal from the 2015 Paris climate accord, the removal of climate change from the list of top US national security threats, and the elimination of the terms “global warming” and “climate change” from US government websites and lexicons. The Guardian concurs, noting that there’s an intense battle over public opinion on climate change, with cues from political elites having a polarizing effect that’s “largely offset when people become aware of the expert consensus.”

So I dug down to see if, indeed, ACC and other environmentally conservative organizations could be “the hub for our very best free-market environmentalist content.” Could they actually promote positions that inspire climate change action and that protect the planet?

environmental conservatism

How Environmental Conservatism Aligns with Free Market

The American Conservation Coalition is distributing data that argues a “strong majority of young voters support clean energy, and desire changes to our current electricity markets that reduce regulations, disrupt monopolies, and increase consumer choice.” So far, so good.

Then there’s the statement from Benji Backer, president of ACC. “Data shows that millennials will likely be the largest voting bloc in the 2018 election cycle. Results from this poll show that these young voters overwhelmingly want the nation to pursue an ‘all-of-the-above’ energy model and other free-market solutions to address the energy challenges facing our nation.” I get why all political parties are interested in millennial voters at the crucial 2018 midterm mark. But what is this ‘all-of-the-above’ energy model?

I turned to the House Committee on Natural Resources, whose website is still up-and-running. Its position is that…

“Increasing access to American energy sources will create jobs, grow our economy, and reduce our nation’s dependence on energy from hostile foreign countries. Republicans support an all-of the-above energy approach that includes development of alternative energy sources such as wind, solar, hydropower, nuclear, geothermal and biomass, along with clean coal and American-made oil and natural gas. A comprehensive plan will help protect the environment and improve our economic and natural security.”

environmental conservatism

Ah! There’s so much code here:

  • “Hostile” foreign countries: In 2017, US net imports (imports minus exports) of petroleum from foreign countries were equal to about 19% of US petroleum consumption. This was the lowest percentage since 1967.
  • “All-of the-above energy approach” contains unabated inclusion of coal, oil, and natural gas. Forbes confirms that “as the US shale oil and gas revolution continues to show, never underestimate how non-stop technological evolution will continue to allow coal, oil, and gas to play a huge role even under strict carbon management policies.”
  • “Protect the environment:” As we have reported consistently on CleanTechnica, it has become increasingly clear that renewable energy is just better than fossil fuels — for people and the environment. Clean renewable energy creates a confluence of reduced air pollution and trade deficits, new jobs, less motivation for foreign wars, and increased US investments — in addition to energy that is renewable and which lessens greenhouse gas emissions.
  • “Improve our economic and natural security:” The Washington Examiner contradicts this claim, suggesting that Trump administration policies “undermine state’s renewable energy leadership based on purported national security concerns. This position goes against everything the national security community has learned about energy security over the past few decades.” They go on to say that “even the military knows it.”

So, what’s the impetus for arguing that an “all-of-the-above” energy policy is a way to promote environmentalism? Clearly, it’s about the bottom line. Profits. Gains. The market economy. Net earnings. The rich get richer.

environmental conservatism

The ACC Platform of Environmental Conservatism

If we look at the ACC’s Platform Points, we see how its clever manipulation of language masks a underlying and pervasive message: appropriating US clean energy as a political cause can be couched within promotion of traditional fossil fuel extraction. These embedded assumptions continue to prop up fossil fuel wealth. Before we get sucked in, we must remember that the International Monetary Fund released numbers that fossil fuel subsidies made for 6.5% of the global GDP in 2015, or about $5.3 trillion. That’s a lot of cash to protect.

Points from the ACC that just aren’t acceptable to climate change activists

“Absent well-defined property rights, regulation, or some communal or tribal management arrangement, ‘each person with access to the resource has an incentive to exploit it and neglect the effects of his or her actions on the resource’s productivity.’ Conversely, without a property interest a person has no incentive to improve the economic productivity or yield of his or her land.” 

An existential assumption here is that property rights confer higher degrees of natural resource protection. Yet, once a property right is converted into a tradable commodity, owners of the rights have no stake in day-to-day production, communities, or resources themselves, so that rights change hands on Wall Street, not in the forests of the Sierra Nevada or the fisheries of New England.

“Humans have the power and capacity to destroy life on earth, whether through using weapons of mass destruction, careless or indifferent use of harmful chemicals, or persistent and unabated abuse of the land. Respect for all life, human ingenuity, and innovation can help to mitigate such destructive forces.” 

Two tremendous logical flaws are contained within these statements.

1) “Mass destruction” and accessing energy need not be interconnected. For example, The Guardian reports that the Australian government insists that renewables have made the renewable energy grid unreliable, yet lights stayed on and prices dropped during the hot 2017 summer without any second of generation-related blackouts. Stability tends to not promote “mass destruction.”

2) Women around the world must have control over their own bodies in the same way that men do. Until reproductive freedom is a fact of daily existence, then “respect for all life” (read: denying rights within Roe vs. Wade) must not become part of any environmental movement. How can it be, when, according to the Global Fund for Women, “214 million women worldwide want, but lack access to, contraception; more than 800 women die daily from preventable causes related to pregnancy and childbirth?”

“Free markets and market-based solutions are preferred over regulation, although the latter are essential for effective and functioning markets.” 

What do free markets have to do with environmental protections? Some might answer that it’s fracking, in which shale gas has brought down the price of natural gas to where it can compete on equal terms with coal as a fuel for power plants. Water contamination, earthquakes, and industrialization of rural areas are only a few of the big environmental concerns that emerge from fracking.

Points from ACC that are consistent with global greenhouse gas emissions goals

Now I must note that some of the points of environmental conservatism have merit. Of course they do, as no movement is a binary in which all is good or bad. It’s just that the bad outweighs the good.

“Environmental conservatism is based in the concept of wise stewardship – rooted in virtues of prudence, personal responsibility, mutuality, and obligation – which transcends political ideology.” 

Stewardship can be defined as a form of collaborative planning and responsible management of the environment through sustainable natural resource management practices that respect ecosystem functions. Different political ideologies and ethical values of stewardship shape the conceptualization of conservation actions and policies, which can include subsets such as reformist, adaptive, sustainability, and transformative stewardship.

Within these subsets, distinctions occur among the role of science, the exploration and integration of the plurality of values, and the capacity to modify values, rules, and decision-making systems. Certainly, each of these may provide directions for both research and conservation policy.

“Just as political conservatism is deeply rooted in the philosophy of providing stability and continuity in our political and social institutions, conservative environmentalism is rooted in the notion of promoting and conserving those earthly tendrils – water, land, and air – that give rise to and sustain life.” 

Groups like the Western Resources Advocate are working to protect the West’s land, air, and water to ensure that vibrant communities exist in balance with nature. In an area of the US with many diverse constituents, they  support the transition to a clean energy future and help their audience to reduce their carbon footprint. In geographic areas as divergent as Connecticut, Michigan, Georgia, New Hampshire, Wisconsin, and Idaho — among others — individuals and groups are working across non-partisan lines to improve water, land, and air quality. It’s absolutely necessary to protect the planet’s essential ecosystems.

“The long-term security and wellbeing of any human society is dependent on healthy and sustainable ecosystems and the agricultural processes operating within them.”

Healthy terrestrial ecosystems are vital for human welfare and survival. Over 90% of our food comes from terrestrial ecosystems, according to the UN, which also provide energy, building materials, clothes, medicines, fresh and clean water, and clean air. Healthy terrestrial ecosystems help to mitigate climate change, are more resilient to environmental disturbances than degraded land, and regulate natural hazards like floods, landslides, and drought — “a service that becomes even more important in times of global climate change.”

Make the polluter pay.”

The EPA — as it is — acknowledges that policy-makers can change consumption and production habits in society through economic incentive or market-based policies that rely on market forces to correct for producer and consumer behavior. As one of my colleagues here at CleanTechnica wrote, Elon Musk coined the term “untaxed negative externality” at the Sorbonne in Paris just prior to the COP 21 conference in 2015. Basically, the concept involves getting someone else to pay a portion of your costs of doing business. Musk referred to it rather dramatically as “the turd in the punchbowl” when discussing the wisdom of making fossil fuels the basis of the global economy.

A conservatism that does not practice restraint, humility, and good stewardship—especially of the natural world—is not fundamentally conservative.

Today the world has about 7.6 billion inhabitants. When conservatives speak about the “ecological limits” and “planetary boundaries” — carrying capacity posits that every ecosystem has a limit to what it can produce — they must acknowledge that it is up to our generation to set up the institutions, laws, and customs that will provide for basic human needs in the world of 10 billion anticipated by 2050. As described in The Atlantic, every generation decides the future, but the choices made are often less about “what this generation thinks is feasible than what it thinks is good.”

If environmental conservatism is really to make a proverbial dent in planetary degradation, it must push vested interests to reshape the conservative identity away from what The Guardian recently described as “ignorance-building strategies” with a more honest, balanced assessment of the role that humans and capitalism have within climate change discussions.

environmental conservatism

Photo on Foter.com and by david_shankbone on Foter.com / CC BY and Photo by Robert Couse-Baker on Foter.com / CC BY

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