When President Richard Nixon signed the National Environmental Policy Act 54 years ago, it was a bipartisan movement — an effort to cope with air and water pollution affecting U.S. communities. Later that year, in 1970, the president created the Environmental Protection Agency and consolidated the programs.
Environmental disasters affected public opinion. For example, the Cuyahoga River caught fire, and an oil disaster spilled 3 million gallons off the Pacific coast in 1969. Republicans led the charge in those days. Today, though, they view environmentalism as a dirty word. What gives?
After the Norwegian Nobel Committee awarded Al Gore and the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change the Nobel Peace Prize for their efforts to increase public understanding of climate change, Republicans reacted adversely. Ironically, President George H.W. Bush endorsed several international environmental agreements, including the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change in 1992.
“The environmental cause is a Republican issue,” said Christine Todd Whitman, former EPA administrator under George W. Bush. “We can do these things without cratering the economy. It is for the good of our children and our grandchildren.”
Indeed, the polls show young Republicans favor a shift to cleaner fuels. For example, green hydrogen can incrementally replace metallurgical coal for steelmaking as renewable energy prices fall. A Citizens for Responsible Energy Solutions Forum survey shows 81 percent of Republicans from 18 to 44 want to combat climate change.
But Donald Trump calls climate change a “hoax.” And now conservative think tanks either ignore the issue or amplify that message. Ditto for the conservative TV networks. Their words: The mainstream media promotes “fake news,” albeit 99 percent of climate scientists say humans contribute to warming.
The reality is that politically motivated talking heads take half-truths and pump incomplete information into the heads of the agitated and exasperated. If we operate on cheap rhetoric and non-facts, the United States risks its position as a global economic and environmental leader. And it will lose the intellectual and investment capital that comes with that.
Solving the climate dilemma is mainstream, and both parties must get on board. Pollution, for instance, leads to poor eyesight and heavy breathing. It also affects skin care, making us all age faster.
While Americans may politicize the issue, much of the world considers it scientific. Moreover, markets view climate-conscious corporate leaders as competent — ones with a strategy to reduce dependence on fossil fuels and mitigate risks. Those principals are also recruiting executives and engineers with an eye toward the future, realizing they must attract and retain a qualified workforce by building sustainable businesses.
“Climate change is not waiting for political change,” said Roger Ballentine, former chairman of the White House Climate Change Task Force under President Bill Clinton. “Any company that is not managing these risks will lose to companies that are.” He points to Tesla: Financial markets have rewarded it for getting ahead of climate change — a valuable lesson for other companies.
Economies evolve. The United States was an agricultural society in the 1880s; now, farmers comprise a small percentage. An Industrial Revolution powered the U.S. after World War II. And today, digital technologies and green energies are firmly entrenched.
Solar power, for example, made up 48 percent of all new electric generating capacity additions during the first three quarters of 2023. Oil companies, which once planted the seeds of climate denialism, are now investing in alternative energies and innovative technologies.
Republicans could facilitate adaptation with the “carrot approach” — offering incentives to grow the economy by transitioning to more sustainable jobs. The signposts point one way, and ignoring or denying that reality is foolish.
Undoubtedly, cheap fossil fuels powered the globe’s remarkable financial sprout. But times have changed, and we must align profit-seekers with climate-friendly businesses. It’s an economic and environmental issue, not a political one, necessitating bipartisan support.
The 1950s are over, and “Father Knows Best” episodes are just re-runs. Fanning the flames of resentment is thus self-defeating because the New Energy Economy will be here for a while.