Happy Earth Day (Final Installment)

A commenter on a previous installment of my Earth Day series here offers a challenge that I hear a lot in various forms:

I’ve been a social and fiscal conservative for as long as I can remember. One thing I don’t understand about my fellow conservatives is their contempt for environmental protection and those that support such protections. It seems to me that conserving the environment would be a significant part of the conservative ideology. When will conservatives put forth a realistic environmental policy of their own? Why concede the issue to the liberals? Something better than “we don’t hurt anything” or “it’ll grow back” is desperately needed!

As it happens, this is a subject I’ve written quite a lot about, including a lecture entitled “Is ‘Conservative Environmentalist’ an Oxymoron?” The short answer is “No,” but in the spirit of Mark Twain’s comment (or was it Groucho Marx?) that he’d never belong to any club that would have him as a member, I don’t call myself an environmentalist because of the company I’d have to keep. (Actually I recently joined the board of an environmental organization that does real honest to goodness, hands-on conservation work, but no political lobbying.)
It is forgotten today that, for example, Barry Goldwater was a member of the Sierra Club, but the fact that not even Goldwater’s maverick, pro-environment successor, John McCain, could conceivably belong to the Sierra Club today (they probably wouldn’t accept him anyway) tells the whole story in a nutshell. The environmental movement, like the civil rights movement before it whose natural home for a long time was the Republican Party, moved sharply and swiftly to the left in the early 1970s, and is today a wholly-owned adjunct of the Democratic Party. After an early bipartisan start, the movement got taken over by people like New Republic columnist James Ridgeway, who wrote around 1973: “Ecology offered liberal-minded people what they had longed for, a safe, rational and above all peaceful way of remaking society…[and] developing a more coherent central state…”
As I mentioned in a short squib in the New York Times “Room for Debate” blog on Thursday, “It is all but forgotten today that the Endangered Species Act had considerable conservative support in the 1970s; one of its chief co-sponsors was conservative Senator James Buckley (William F. Buckley’s brother); Newt Gingrich still defends the act, but gets no credit for it whatsoever from environmentalists.” Another data point: the first President Bush made passage of the Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990 a major legislative priority, securing the last significant bipartisan environmental legislation we’ve seen, and also attended the Rio Earth Summit in 1992, committing the U.S. to the whole UN global warming process. And how many environmental groups endorsed Bush for re-election? That’s right: zero. To the contrary, most environmental groups boycotted the Clean Air Act signing ceremony in 1990 because it wasn’t extreme enough for them.
The League of Conservation Voters deliberately crafts its vote-rating scorecards to make Democrats look good and Republicans look bad. I have to say I’m enjoying the irony that if McCain (LCV score: zero) had won the 2008 election instead of Obama (who scored perfectly with the LCV–when he showed up to vote), we’d surely have passed a cap and trade bill, as McCain, who’d co-sponsored earlier cap and trade bills with Joe Lieberman, would have made it a higher priority than health care reform, and would have brought some Republicans along.
It is finally starting to occur to a few environmentalists and journalists who cover the beat like the New Republic‘s Brad Plumer that their extreme partisanship and ideological rigidly has hurt them, but the environmental establishment’s response to their internal critics like Matt Nisbet and the dynamic duo of Shellenberger and Nordhaus has been to stomp their feet and yell louder. Who are the “denialists” now?
Special Earth Day bonus: Don’t miss Charles Lane’s takedown of China’s high speed rail in today’s Washington Post. Prediction: this won’t make Tom Friedman stop talking nonsense about how awesome China is.

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