February 24th, 2012

The Republican anti-environment consensus

4 minute read

by Peter Jones


Rick Santorum’s improbable remarks in Ohio about President Obama’s commitment to a “phoney theology” of environmentalism have been making headlines – but how far apart are the Republican candidates for the presidential nomination on environmental issues? Which way should an environmentally-minded registered GOP voter turn?

I should begin by saying that there are such creatures. Even on the divisive question of climate change, a Yale / George Mason University study in 2011 found that 36% of Republicans surveyed – together with 19% of Tea Party members – believe that global warming is occurring and caused mostly by human activities.


Difference and repetition

One thing I’ve always loved about American politics is the sheer democracy of the primary process. Nothing in the UK compares with the highly public process of selecting presidential candidates. It represents a chance for different voices to be heard, and different views to compete for supremacy. So are any of the candidates courting this sizeable group of climate change-believing voters, or highlighting other important environmental issues?


Rick Santorum Iowa State Fair 2011

Santorum speaking at Iowa State Fair, 2011. By Gage Skidmore, Wikimedia Commons

It is revealing that none of the four surviving candidates has a section on environmental policies on their campaign websites. Instead, each has a section on energy policy, in which they give their views on climate change. Only Mitt Romney mentions that he will make “every effort to safeguard the environment”. And while Newt Gingrich may in the past have appeared in an ad with Nancy Pelosi stating his concerns about climate change, he now says this was the “dumbest thing I’ve done in the last four years“. Makes you wonder what he did five years ago…


Drills and spills

Prime target for each of the candidates are the current limitations on oil drilling. Here the menu ranges from Ron Paul and Rick Santorum apparently undertaking to remove all bans and restrictions; Newt Gingrich proposing the removal of “bureaucratic and legal obstacles to responsible oil and natural gas development”; and Mitt Romney sounding the most measured with his proposal to streamline regulation, including developing “fast-track procedures for companies with established safety records to conduct pre-approved activities in pre-approved areas”. He, at least, seems to think voters may remember the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.


Regulation catches

As one would expect from “small government” Republicans, cutting regulation is a recurring theme. Paul takes up the most hard line position, proposing the elimination of the Environmental Protection Agency, with polluters to answer to “property owners” in the courts. It is unclear how the impacts of pollution on people without property will be tackled… Gingrich would replace the EPA with an organisation that would use incentives and balance environmental outcomes with job creation and energy costs, while Santorum and Romney identify particular pieces of legislation for the chop – in particular, emissions rules on greenhouse gases.


Energy distortions

Each candidate also takes the trouble to mention some alternative energy sources. Romney is the least specific, stating that solar and wind energy have failed to become viable, and that resources must instead be targeted on basic research. Paul would make tax credits available to support the purchase and production of (unspecified) alternative energy sources. Gingrich and Santorum do mention existing alternative energy sources in a positive light – aiming to maximise production from all sources. But Santorum also proposes to eliminate the subsidies and tax credits he sees as distorting the market, which would effectively prevent most alternative energy sources from competing with the established fossil fuel technology.

The candidates differ in the motivations they identify for these policies. For Santorum, energy security is top of the agenda; for Romney, growth and jobs are the focus. Meanwhile Gingrich and Paul set out to tackle “skyrocketing fuel prices” – but the conclusions all four reach have more similarities than differences.


Pollution? What pollution?

One fascinating thing about the focus on climate change is the way that it is becoming the only environmental issue that seems to need talking about. Take the Keystone Pipeline debate for example. When the State Department decided that further time was needed to explore the potential environmental impacts of its route, especially through the ecologically sensitive Sand Hills area of Nebraska, a Republican ultimatum to approve the pipeline by 21st February led President Obama to reject it outright – although it remains open to the company planning it, TransCanada, to reapply. But for Romney and Santorum, the pipeline is purely an energy issue – and one to be resolved in favour of development as quickly as possible. There’s no mention of the risk of pollution or its importance as a source of water affecting eight states – it is simply an obstacle to energy security.

It seems that for a Republican candidate, climate change is the only environmental issue worth talking about – and then only from the standpoint of a sceptic. Rick Santorum may think this represents husbanding Earth’s resources and “being good stewards” – but to many others it will look like mortgaging the future in pursuit of a fast buck. While the Republicans may come in slightly different shades, none of them appears to be green in hue.


Peter Jones


Peter Jones



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