Republicans belittle environmental concerns at the

John Leo

4/2/2001 12:00:00 AM - John Leo
After a speech I gave to a conservative group in New York, a man rose to ask a question: Didn't I think that all the alarm about global warming was just another example of the politically correct agenda of the left? I said no, the evidence of a drastic warming trend seemed overwhelming to me.

I missed the opportunity to say that the "no-consensus-on-warming" crowd now sounds a lot like the tobacco lobby arguing that the link between smoking and lung cancer has not yet been established. Even without this observation, my response was incorrect. So the man asked his question again to give me a fresh chance to get things right. I said I didn't understand why social conservatives are generally so hostile to environmental concerns. Shouldn't conserving come naturally to conservatives?

Apparently not. Economic conservatives, for whom The Wall Street Journal is the primary spokesman, are dismissive about most environmentalism. When President Bush announced he would not abide by the Kyoto protocol calling on America to reduce carbon dioxide emissions, the Journal hailed him for "refusing to bow before the environmentalist holy of holies."

Derisive references to environmentalism as a quasi-religion of the softheaded tend to play well among social and religious conservatives who generally don't respond to arguments from big business. These references remind all conservatives that the most extreme environmentalism does look a bit like an ersatz earth religion, with humans as the poisonous intruders who shouldn't be here. But why do social and religious conservatives so often fall in line with business executives who dismiss environmentalists as wackos?

One reason is that environmentalism rose out of the same 1960s agitation that social conservatives believe was so ruinous to the general culture. Some environmentalists give the impression that the movement is simply part of the left, thus managing to alienate potential supporters on the right. This is a major strategic mistake, but an understandable one, given the hostility to the environment that Republicans have produced over the past 20 years.

Issues of class are a factor, too. Environmentalists tend to come from well-off elites with the luxury of worrying about the snail darter and the state of the global environment in 2050. When a candidate like Al Gore appears, it is relatively easy for Republicans to connect the dots and associate environmentalism with elite Democratic stances that appall so many conservatives.

The result is that on every level, the party with the most social conservatives contains the fewest environmentalists. In Congress, the most notable Republican effort in this field is attaching anti-environmental riders to appropriations bills. Martha Marks, head of REP America, refers to herself as "the president of what a few jokers have called the world's funniest oxymoron: Republicans for Environmental Protection."

The absence of a meaningful environmental constituency explains why it was so easy for the new administration to back off the Kyoto agreement and support drilling for oil in the Arctic Wildlife Refuge and (ominously) other wilderness areas. The undermining of Christine Whitman as head of the Environmental Protection Agency apparently began early. Word came that she was known around the White House as "Brownie," a sarcastic reference to President Clinton's EPA chief, Carol Browner, who was predictably unpopular among many big-name Republicans. Is this a show of contempt for Whitman, her agency, or both?

Republican anti-environmentalism dates only from the Reagan years. As opinion rose against big government and heavy regulation, particularly in the West, environmental protection was demonized as a symbol of Washington's overbearing power. By the time of Newt Gingrich's poll-tested Contract With America, anti-environmentalism was part of the Republican canon. Environmental historian Willam Cronon writes that the contract "came to grief in good measure because most Americans continue to believe that protecting the environment is a good thing." Newt now thinks so too, and has admitted that Republicans were "malpositioned" on the environment.

George W. Bush is probably too moderate a man to emerge as a version of the old anti-environmental Newt. But even in narrow partisan terms, the Republicans should be careful here. Wirthlin Worldwide, a polling firm associated with Republican causes, reports that "two out of three Americans say we need to protect the environment no matter what it costs."

In 1999, Zogby International, another pollster heavily used by the GOP, surveyed probable Republican primary voters in five key states and found about as much support for "protect the environment" (92 percent) as "encourage family values" (93 percent). And an Environmental Defense Fund poll says that young adults (18 to 25) are "remarkably skeptical" about environmental progress over the past 30 years, with 62 percent believing that conditions are now worse than in 1970.

Republicans may be counting on the old rule of thumb: Everybody supports the environment in polls, but it's nobody's primary concern in the voting booth. But if I were running the party, I don't think I would tie myself closely to the losing side of a broad national argument.