Wide open plains, blue skies, and endless rolling hills –There is almost nothing more American than the idea of wide open expanses of land, a visual representation of the Americana’s: freedom. Conservationist and US President Theodore Roosevelt, a Republican, founded America’s first great national park along with an oft-repeated quote beholding the grandeur of American land:
Here is your country. Cherish these natural wonders, cherish the natural resources, cherish the history and romance as a sacred heritage, for your children and your children’s children. Do not let selfish men or greedy interests skin your country of its beauty, its riches or its romance.
The wildness, rawness, vastness, and most importantly, the presentation of possibility have always beckoned to and enticed enterprising Americans; for example, the tradition of Manifest Destiny, the alluring image of the American West, and the myth and the excitement surrounding the California Gold Rush endure in the collective American memory.
Current debates surrounding mass industrialization, fossil fuel emissions, and technology have made the relationship between people and the land increasingly complicated in recent years and contributed to the hyperpolarization of politics in the United States. The stain of identity politics has soaked into the environmentalist movement, feeding into the common view that concerns about climate change and conservation are not issues of importance to anyone who does not identify as a member of the Democratic Party.
House Speaker Paul Ryan spoke out this past summer against the illusion of a false choice between conservatism and protecting the environment. Fielding a high school intern’s question during a closed forum for the Congressional Internship Lecture Series, Ryan spoke about how best to respond to students at his school claiming that the Trump Administration and Republicans do not want to protect the Earth from climate change:
“Our goal is not to have to make some false choice between economic growth and progress and being good stewards of our environment…I think technology is the answer, and so we think we can live in harmony by having good jobs, faster economic growth and technological developments, which help us.”
Is there evidence that the GOP is returning to its environmentalist roots? Speaker Ryan has gone beyond rhetoric: a self-described avid outdoorsman, he has supported initiatives and technologies needed to address major environmental challenges such as the Farm Bill and the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative. Other recent Republican party leaders that have supported “Green Conservatism” include George W. Bush, who supported increased federal investment into the development of clean alternative fuels and John McCain, who supported cap-and-trade emissions regulation.
Indisputably, many of the laws regulating and protecting the environment were enacted under Republican administrations. Republican President Richard Nixon shepherded the passage of the 1970 National Environmental Policy Act, which created the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The Resource and Conservation and Recovery Act, still the most sweeping regulation in the US on disposal of hazardous waste, was passed in 1976 and signed by President Gerald Ford, a Republican. The 1990 Clean Air Act Amendment, which expanded the scope of the Clean Air Act, was proposed and signed by President George H.W. Bush, a Republican.
In recent years, however, many Republicans have argued that these and other environmental laws and regulations have gone too far at the expense of the U.S. economy and workers—i.e, more environmental regulations entail higher expenses for companies and corporations, manifesting in the workforce as fewer jobs.
Some have even lauded President Trump’s decision to pull the US out of the Paris Climate Accord as “saving the environmentalism movement from itself”, and that President Trump was wise to leave an agreement that was all talk and little action. An oft-repeated argument in favor of leaving the agreement states that the US pledge was more burdensome than that of other signatories; the Agreement had built-in advantages for China, setting unrealistic goals for the US and giving China a ‘hall pass’ in terms of emissions requirements. An unintended positive consequence following the US departure from the accords has been that states are now taking on a more proactive role in protecting the climate.
The Paris Climate Agreement, heavily backed by French President Emmanuel Macron, was based on climate projections from the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and other scientific organizations which provide the agreement’s scientific underpinning. Independent review, however, has found the IPCC and their apocalyptic predictions for the climate to be unreliable, and according to Forbes, a recent IPCC report “deliberately excludes and misrepresents important climate science”. Unfortunately, although in the scientific community the IPCC is dismissed, some more liberal-leaning mass media outlets like opinion website Vox use IPCC reports to strike fear into the hearts of Americans.
A recent report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, a prominent nonprofit organization based in Washington, D.C., suggests that there may be a way to reconcile the apparent competing interests of protecting the Earth’s climate and strengthening the U.S. economy. The report, Negative Emissions Technologies and Reliable Sequestration: A Research Agenda, which was released on October 24, 2018, concluded that new “negative emissions technologies” (NETs) that remove and sequester carbon dioxide from the air will need to be developed to achieve goals for both climate and economic growth.
Stephen Pacala, Professor at Princeton University and the U.S. National Academy of Sciences member who chaired the committee that authored the report, said:
“Negative emissions technologies are essential to offset carbon dioxide emissions that would be difficult to eliminate and should be viewed as a component of the climate change mitigation portfolio. Most climate mitigation efforts are intended to decrease the rate at which people add carbon from the fossil fuel reservoirs to the atmosphere. We focused on the reverse—technologies that take carbon out of the air and put it back into ecosystems and the land. We determined that a substantial research initiative should be launched to advance these promising technologies as soon as possible.”
The expert committee determined that “advances in NETs also could have economic rewards, as intellectual property rights and economic benefits will likely accrue to the nations that develop the best technology”.
Another recent example where environmental and economic interests were both simultaneously achieved was the recent passage of the “Promoting Closed-Loop Pumped Storage Hydropower Act”, authored by Republican Representative Morgan Griffith of Virginia’s 9th Congressional District. This law is aimed at expediting the permitting process for closed-loop power plants that require cooling. In the United States, 90% of electricity comes from thermoelectric power plants which includes coal, nuclear, natural gas, and oil and the remaining 10% comes from hydroelectric and other renewable facilities.
Closed Loop cooling systems reuse cooling water rather than discard it back to its original. While they have lower water withdrawals than once-through systems, these systems have higher water consumption.
Congressman Griffith represents a large portion of Southwestern Virginia, a mountainous area with low population density. This makes his district an ideal location to branch out and build renewable energy products to stimulate the local economy and attract new businesses to the district; geographic location of power plants plays a huge role in how efficient and productive they are, normally requiring sites with high solar radiation and geothermal energy.
A conversation with Representative Griffith’s Communications Director revealed that the Congressman’s interest in the bill began with the last session of Congress. A member of the Energy and Commerce Subcommittee, Griffith wanted to be the one to introduce the bill because it complimented ongoing state-level legislation.
The initial passage of the standalone Closed Loop Storage Bill in the House of Representatives occurred last year but was ultimately unsuccessful and did not pass in the Senate. As a larger Water Power Package was put together, bipartisan negotiations took place in the House and Senate until the bill was finally successful.
Delegate Terry Kilgore, a Republican member of the Virginia House of Delegates who introduced some of the legislation, announced that a tax revenue sharing agreement with local coalfields will manifest as wealth spreading throughout the area; “It’s going to affect all of Southwest Virginia, and that’s great.”
This is an area that desperately needs economic diversification, where much of the district has relied solely on coal for centuries to bring economic activity and prosperity to the area. In fact, one of the loudest arguments for the bill was that it would help the economically depressed region, adding to similar ongoing projects. This would attract new business activity such as the new thermoelectric plant Dominion Energy, a major American power company, is considering building. While Griffith’s Communications Director pointed out it is ultimately up to individual companies to invest in new projects in Southwestern Virginia, bills like the Closed Loop Storage Bill certainly make the process easier. Feedback from constituents has been largely positive and the bill has received positive press coverage by several large news outlets such as the Associated Press.
In regards to future plans for the environmental development of the region and similar projects, the Griffith team says to stay tuned until the next Congress.
The race is on for other Republicans to follow Griffith’s lead in embracing policies that protect the environment and strengthen the economy, such as investing in NETs and “revisiting” the Party’s pro-environment legacy of Teddy Roosevelt. With a legacy dating back President Lincoln’s 1864 Yosemite Grant Act, Republicans have played an essential role in protecting the American environment, and must continue to do so to set an example for the rest of the world by supporting win-win policies to protect and support both the economy and the environment.
Edited by Andrew Figueiredo