Friday, August 2, 2013

Conservative Environmentalism: It's Not Just About Ideology

The New York Times today has an interesting op-ed written by several former EPA administrators on the Republican case for climate change and the executive branch's capability for direct action in light of congress' legislative inaction.

Every time I hear calls for conservatives to embrace environmentalist public policy I'm struck by how logical it seems: conservatives support free- and well-functioning markets, the existence of environmental externalities prevents efficient markets, thus policy that corrects environmental distortions is conservative. Even the marketing angle is tight and clean: conservatives are the "stewards" of the free market, which necessarily implies being stewards of the earth. These logical connections are arguably superior to liberals' attachments to environmentalism, which are numerous, often complex, and always mushy (chemicals are evil, mountains are beautiful, etc.). In politics, simple messaging is the most effective. On this measure environmentalism should be squarely located within Republicans' policy wheelhouse. So why isn't it?

On this issue more than any other, the primacy of identity affiliation in politics is apparent. Political parties are coalitions, often tightly linked to logically consistent moral philosophies, but not always. Through a complex array of contingent historical and demographic factors, the Democratic party became affiliated with environmentalism and Republicans opposed (more on this in a future post). Today, one of the biggest forcing mechanisms holding this status quo together is social identity. Democrats signal their affiliation by supporting environmentalist social trends, policy, fashion, etc. Republicans oppose environmentalism for the same reasons--they don't want to affiliate with all those hippie bourgeois bohemians in cities.

Many of the arguments you hear on both sides of the aisle justifying the status quo in terms of the political parties' established moral philosophies are actually post-facto rationalizations with questionable logical consistency (more on this here). Consequently, the most exciting prospects for environmentalist policy action concerns the identification and manipulation of novel issue dimensions that can confound and muddle the existing Republican-Democrat stasis. Local issues can trump national party allegiance. Big business sectors with a rational interest in preventing climate change doom scenarios, such as property insurers, can leverage their existing links to pro-business Republicans to shift policy. Humanitarians concerned with rural poverty and malnutrition in developing nations can push for more R&D in genetically modified crops, appealing to bleeding-heart Democrats. The list goes on, but one thing is for sure: framing a "Republican environmentalism" is a nice soundbite but substantively next-to-useless in achieving real policy change.

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