Politics as Usual Stifles Action on Environment

By Jordan Stephen

On Monday, President Obama became the first commander-in-chief to venture into the northern reaches of Alaska to examine the visible effect climate change is having on the country.

The trip highlights the administration's desire to draw attention to climate change, an issue the President intends to bring to the forefront of the political conversation before he retires from the Oval Office.

But despite consistent public cries to address environmental issues, especially from millennials, the past decade has seen little legislative movement in the area. In fact, the last major piece of environmental law was passed in 2007, and largely focused on economic issues.

Dr. Simon Nicholson, the director of American University's Global Environmental Politics program, blames a common culprit.

"The short answer is politics," Nicholson told GVH Live. "Environmental issues have become part of our political and cultural divisions. They have become issues of ideology instead of science."

Climate change, pollution and conservation have all become partisan affairs. According to a survey done by Pew Research, nearly 80 percent of Democrats support stricter pollution regulation compared to only 50 percent of Republicans.

This was not always the case.

"Many of the most robust pieces of environmental legislation was passed when Republicans controlled the White House," Nicholson said. "Many called themselves conservationists. It wasn't a dirty word."

The strict regulatory Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act were both signed into law by President Richard Nixon, a Republican known for his social conservatism and "anti-hippie" sentiment. Other right-wing conservationist included conservative firebrand U.S. Senator Barry Goldwater and British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.

"Flash forward to the early 1980s and the rise of Reagan," Nicholson said. "Now there's a big clash between economic growth and environmental protection. Republicans know they are going to lose the environmental battle, so the Democrats are labelled 'anti-growth.'"

This dichotomy has carried over to the present day and has virtually split the electorate into two competing camps, a division Nicholson described as "senseless."

Congress reflects this divide. Many Republicans in the Senate have publicly denied a relationship between human activity and climate change.

An overwhelming majority of scientific studies have found a link between the two.

With Republicans in control of both the House and the Senate, President Obama has been forced to pursue his agenda through executive action alone. Imposing stricter carbon emissions rules through the Environmental Protection Agency has been a major component of his Clean Power Plan.

Working through executive action, the Commander-in-chief can take baby steps with his agenda, but to make real progress, the President must go through Congress, a fairly bleak proposition.

As a new generation of voters and politicians come to power, however, we may be moving towards more comprehensive ecological policy.

Millennials care more about environmental issues than their older counterparts. A poll from Harstad Research found that 76 percent of 18-33 year-olds believe that the government should do more to protect the environment. Controlling pollution was their greatest regulatory concern above protecting the rights of women, workers and minorities.

While many young voters are passionate about the issue, Nicholson pressed the urgent need for immediate action.

"Every generation faces a consequential challenge," he said. "In the 1930s it was the Great Depression, in the 1940s it was World War II. This is our big thing. If we don't get this right, nothing else will matter."