Preserving the Environment

When Liberals and Conservatives Came Together on the Environment

October 6, 2017
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When Liberals and Conservatives Came Together on the Environment
Concern for the environment hasn't always been a partisan issue. Photo by Sean Gallup/Getty Images
Nearly three decades ago, bipartisan legislation cut acid rain by half. Today’s environmentalists hope to replicate the across-the-aisle goodwill that helped the law pass.

Kyle Meyaard-Schaap’s environmental revelation came on the top of a mountain. What was left of one anyway.

As an undergrad at Calvin College, a Christian liberal arts school in Grand Rapids, Mich., Meyaard-Schaap began learning about mountaintop-removal mining. He took trips to West Virginia in 2010 and 2012, where for decades swaths of mountains in the mid-Appalachian region have had their peaks blasted off, allowing miners to bore out the coal within. Before then, Meyaard-Schaap, who grew up in a close-knit evangelical family in a small Michigan town, hadn’t given much thought to the environment. “Those issues weren’t even on my radar,” he says.

But in West Virginia he camped with nuns on top of denuded, geologic stumps. They had to shower with rainwater, because the groundwater had become so polluted. He met with families of children diagnosed with cancer attributed to the mining waste that had seeped into the region’s aquifers.

“I started to connect environmental care with people care,” says Meyaard-Schaap, 29, who went on to found the activist group Young Evangelicals for Climate Action (YECA). “It wasn’t much of a stretch to connect that to climate.”

Meyaard-Schaap is part of a new generation of activists who fight for tougher environmental laws — the sort usually associated with liberals — by asserting the values and policies more commonly embraced by conservatives. Framing issues of the left through the political lens of the right is a method that’s worked in the past, especially when it comes to climate change.

A member of Young Evangelicals for Climate Action participates in the People’s Climate March in April 2017.Photo courtesy of Young Evangelicals for Climate Action

A POLICY INNOVATION THAT ‘SKIPPED-A-BEAT’

Two decades before Meyaard-Schaap’s activism, a Republican lawyer and political advisor named C. Boyden Gray crafted a potential solution to the rising threat of climate change. Gray had been intrigued for decades by the possibility of using cap-and-trade to clean the atmosphere. The system works by setting aggregate limits on pollutants while allowing businesses to meet them by paying, trading or innovating to account for their share.

Gray had previously worked for Ronald Reagan, a president whose popularity with evangelicals helped catapult him to the White House, and watched as Reagan’s tenure ended with an environmental crisis. So much sulfur had been belched by Rust Belt coal plants into the wind currents that blew across the Great Lakes and into Canada that fragile ecosystems, along with many thousands of people, had become sick. The prime minister of Canada quipped grimly about declaring war.

In 1988 — the first presidential election to feature staunch environmentalist Al Gore as a candidate — Republican nominee George H. W. Bush pledged to be an “environmental president.” Gray saw his opportunity. With little fanfare he helped write cap-and-trade legislation targeting sulfur; it became law under the Clean Air Act of 1990. Within a few years, the amount of acid rain (which occurs when sulfur rises in the atmosphere and mixes with water, oxygen and other pollutants) decreased by half — at a cost of around one-eighth what critics had feared. The success was resounding.

“You let the market take over, and government doesn’t get in the way,” Gray tells NationSwell. “It’s the most efficient, frictionless way to reduce pollutants.”

Gray and others believed this tool, cap-and-trade, could be expanded and modified to squelch climate change too. But then government — or, rather, politics — did get in the way.

Far-left environmentalists and far-right Republicans both soured on cap-and-trade. Meanwhile, the common ground stood on by centrist members of both parties was splitting apart. Environmentalism was ceded to the left, and then weaponized against them by the right. By 2009, Democratic representatives Henry A. Waxman of California and Edward J. Markey of Massachusetts had written cap-and-trade legislation for carbon that passed the Democratic-controlled House. But Senate Republicans wouldn’t even consider it.

Cap-and-trade, Gray says, “skipped a beat.”

TAKING IT TO THE STATES

Three years earlier, the acrid political climate had made state lawmakers in California give up on the federal government. Assembly speaker Fabian Nunez, a Democrat from Los Angeles, co-authored the Global Warming Solutions Act of 2006. In sweeping fashion, it reshaped the state’s electric, construction and automotive industries. Inspired by the success against acid rain, parts of this act included cap-and-trade. But Nunez insisted, against the wishes of then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, that it also include mandates limiting carbon emissions.

“My idea was, we’ve got do a mandate; necessity is the mother of invention,” says Nunez today. “I’m a Mexican-American from Los Angeles. I grew up in a polluted neighborhood in San Diego underneath the smokestacks of a shipbuilding company, surrounded by junkyards and stray dogs. I care about the environment; I just came about it a little bit differently.”

California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (C) signs the California Global Warming Solutions Act of 2006 to reduce greenhouse emissions.Photo by David Paul Morris/Getty Images

That landmark California law inspired others. Hawaii, for example, made a bold commitment to get its energy completely from clean renewables by midcentury. Dozens of U.S. cities also did the same. Some states, including Illinois and New York, have made more gradual commitments.

Utilities are responding to this pressure. Duke Energy, a large utility provider in the Southeast and former scourge of environmentalists, has set a “new goal to reduce C02 emissions 40 percent from 2005 levels by 2030,” says spokeswoman Dawn Santoianni.

This dogpile against carbon pollution by states, cities, shareholders, customers and citizens could be the best strategy in an era of federal abdication to fight climate change. The common denominator uniting these various tools — cap-and-trade, mandates, shareholder demands and citizen protests — is the assignation of a negative financial, legal or social value on excess carbon.

“If the true cost of production is taken into account, cleaner sources of fuel, such as solar and wind, will be more competitive,” says Tom Erb, national field organizer for the pro-carbon tax campaign Put a Price on It.

CONNECTING ACROSS THE AISLE

How can more bodies be added to the weight of the masses trying to clamp shut the carbon vents cooking the world? Michael Livermore, the executive director of New York University’s Institute for Policy Integrity, says the answer for environmentalists lies across the partisan chasm.

“The most important actors out there,” he says, “are people who care about climate and are Republicans.”

Meyaard-Schaap, of Young Evangelicals for Climate Action, had a revelation about that too.

He listened as language used by many on the left to convey the urgency of climate action turned to static on the social frequencies attuned to by his loved ones. So he looked to the American evangelical tradition for a solution: Stories of personal transformation can connect where scientific data does not.

He says his own family is an example. Not too long ago, Meyaard-Schaap’s parents and grandparents were “suspicious” about climate change, he says. Since he testified to them about his change of heart, they now donate regularly to his nonprofit. So far, YECA has engaged more than 10,000 people across the nation in the fight against the warming of the planet.

“When it comes to climate change, you’re not going to get anywhere unless you affirm the values of your audience,” he says. “What we’re trying to do is bear witness to the fact that this doesn’t have to be such a divisive issue.”

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