How to Talk to a Conservative About the Environment

U.S. President Richard M. Nixon signs a legislation placing new curbs on smog from auto exhaust in the White House in Washing
U.S. President Richard M. Nixon signs a legislation placing new curbs on smog from auto exhaust in the White House in Washington, D.C., Dec. 31, 1974. Applauding are William D. Ruckelshaus, left, head of the Environmental Protection Agency, and Russel Train, chairman of the Council on Environmental Quality. The painting on the wall of the Roosevelt Room is a Remington of a charge by Teddy Roosevelt's troops in the Spanish Civil War. (AP Photo)

Not too long ago, environmental reform was a bipartisan, no-brainer issue. President Richard Nixon, a social conservative on many issues, established the Environmental Protection Agency. Our major federal environmental laws, like the Clean Water Act and Clean Air Act, were all passed with bipartisan support, as was later legislation which strengthened them. But things have changed. Data from the Pew Research Center shows that Republican support for the environment has sharply declined.

What happened? What changed so drastically in the 40 years federal environmental laws have been in existence? There are still crunchy-conservatives and right-wing, pro-environmental groups like Atlanta's Green Tea Coalition and Ducks Unlimited. But why are we seeing such a sharp decline in Republicans willing to support environmental issues?

A recent article in The Atlantic asserts that environmental messaging just doesn't appeal to conservatives. And environmental groups that fail to understand conservatives just end up preaching to the choir. To make environmentalism a no-brainer again, the rhetoric must change to show how protecting the environment is both a religious responsibility and economically beneficial.

Religious Responsibility

According to a study conducted by Matthew Feinberg of Stanford and Robb Willer of UC Berkeley, contemporary environmental discourse is based largely on concerns related to harm and care, which are morals held by more liberals than by conservatives. But reframing environmental rhetoric to address conservative morals of purity, sanctity, and religious responsibility, largely eliminated the difference between liberals' and conservatives' environmental attitudes. This suggests that political polarization around environmental issues isn't inevitable, it's just a problem with messaging.

Many popes have reframed environmental discourse in this way. For example, in his 1995 Evangelium Vitae, Pope John Paul II said:

In fact, the dominion granted to man by the Creator is not an absolute power, nor can one speak of a freedom to use and misuse, or to dispose of things as one pleases. The limitation imposed from the beginning by the Creator himself and expressed symbolically by the prohibition not to "eat of the fruit of the tree" (Gen 2:16-17) shows clearly enough that, when it comes to the natural world, we are subject not only to biological laws but also to moral ones, which cannot be violated with impunity.

Pope John Paul II did not speak of ecological harm or fairness. Instead, he laid out a purely religious argument for environmental protection. And his reference to the "fruit of the tree" speaks to a purity that we have degraded or lost through our decisions to pollute Creation.

Economic Benefits

The Republican Party is the party of "economic freedom and the prosperity freedom makes possible"; it doesn't support policies that may infringe on that maxim, like environmental regulations. But many Republicans forget that American prosperity is being increasingly funneled into the hands of a few, which stifles competition. And environmentalists who are interested in changing the rhetoric to appeal to conservatives need to point out why that's a dangerous thing.

No one really lays out the connection between environmental reform and economic benefits better than Debbie Dooley of the Green Tea Party Coalition:

The premise is simple: Those who believe in the free market need to reexamine the way our country produces energy. Giant utility monopolies deserve at least some competition, and consumers should have a choice.

Her argument makes complete sense -- limiting prosperity to a few giant companies actually hurts economic freedom. Consumers have more than one choice when it comes to shampoo brands and toothbrushes. Shouldn't they have the same freedom when it comes to energy and car companies?

The environmental movement needs to recognize conservative concerns if it's going to make any headway. By changing the rhetoric to include religious responsibility and economic benefits, we may see the days of bipartisan environmental reform once again.

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