by Jazzy Kerber '20
Today is Election Day, so let’s talk environmental policy. What comes to mind when you hear the phrase “environmental policy”? Al Gore? The EPA? Regulations? Democrats? Maybe you don’t think of these particular words, but there’s a good chance that if you live in the United States, you associate environmentalism with the political Left.
Why? Why can’t we accept that no matter how we cast our votes, we all share a planet? Why can’t we trust climate scientists and see that data doesn’t lie? Perhaps we’re asking the wrong questions.
First of all, although 7.6 billion of us “share” the Earth, we don’t all share the same ideas about what nature means, we don’t all experience the same weather patterns, and we don’t all have the same viewpoints and values. Someone living on the beach and someone residing in a city center, a devoutly religious person and an atheist, a financial advisor and a scuba diver will likely perceive the world and its most pressing issues very differently from each other.
That’s not to say I believe every opinion is justified, but one or more sides may have been misled—or even deliberately deceived. And sometimes, data does lie. It’s possible to misuse the scientific method. In this next section, I’m going to draw on some ideas from Merchants of Doubt, a 2010 book by Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway. This is not a book review and I don’t intend to endorse or summarize all of Oreskes and Conway’s ideas, but they provide some great food for thought.
Oreskes and Conway, both academic historians, begin their story with a small group of scientists and an organization called the George C. Marshall Institute. Several physicists including Frederick Seitz, Robert Jastrow, and William Nierenberg initially established the George C. Marshall Institute in 1984 to defend Ronald Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative against pushback from other groups including the Union of Concerned Scientists. Perhaps fueled in part by this early work, they feared communism and socialism. They also honed their skills in arguing against other scientists and asking TV stations to invite them to debates.
Even before founding the George C. Marshall Institute, Seitz had practiced using his brand of contrarian science to support the R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company. When scientists first began uncovering links between cigarette smoking and cancer in the 1950s, the industry panicked and sought research that could produce counter-evidence. Of course, Frederick Seitz was a physicist without experience working on health issues, but he had a PhD and for the industry, that would be enough. The tobacco industry’s paid scientists didn’t need to objectively analyze the smoking-cancer link, anyway. “Doubt is our product,” a tobacco executive himself wrote in a 1969 company memo. The longer people weren’t sure smoking caused cancer, the longer cigarette companies could be certain they’d enjoy high sales. As a result, cigarette companies paid researchers to produce studies demonstrating how many other factors besides cigarettes might cause cancer and obsessing over small degrees of statistical uncertainty in reports from the anti-smoking side.
With a solid background in manufactured doubt, Frederick Seitz and others went on to use the same uncertainty tactics they’d relied on during the fight for tobacco to publish papers questioning whether people could trust climate change data. Again, the papers’ authors had been trained in completely different fields from environmental science, but they had PhD’s and funding. And like tobacco companies, oil companies had plenty of money and a product many people were reluctant to give up. Doubt would be enough.
Types of climate change doubt vary, ranging from “Have temperatures really risen?” to “Would it be that bad if the Earth got warmer?” to “Sure, the Earth is getting warmer, but are humans causing the change?” Sometimes, people who do believe human actions cause global warming also ask whether the costs of environmental regulations could outweigh their benefits. Perhaps part of the struggle to convince voters to support environmentally friendly policies lies in the fact that some people aren’t sure whether the planet is warming at all while others voting for the same candidate are merely skeptical of regulations in general.
The Republican Change of Heart
Republican candidates who prioritize climate action may be having an increasingly hard time. It was actually a Republican president, Richard Nixon, who established the EPA in 1970. Under our current Republican administration, EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt doubts that carbon dioxide contributes to global warming and sued the EPA at least fourteen times before assuming his current post as the head of the agency. Essentially, he’s an anti-EPA EPA Administrator. What happened over the past forty-seven years to cause this change?
Merchants of Doubt came out in 2010, well before anyone could foresee where American environmental policy would be headed today, but Pruitt appears to deny climate change using similar logic to that which Oreskes and Conway describe. He says we need to “continue to debate” how humans affect the environment because “measuring with precision human activity on the climate is something very challenging to do and there's tremendous disagreement about the degree of impact.” Pruitt has close ties to oil and gas executives, so his “doubt” can help their businesses.
In 2008, Democrat Nancy Pelosi and Republican Newt Gingrich sat side-by-side and made a commercial stating that we (presumably Democrats and Republicans) can solve climate change together. In 2011, however, Gingrich called the ad “probably the dumbest single thing I’ve done in recent years” and told reporters he doesn’t know whether global warming is really happening, partly because the Earth’s temperatures have always varied from year to year. He too turned to doubt. I’m not 100% sure why Gingrich changed his stance, but perhaps it was to win more Republican votes.
It’s hard to sell environmentalism to a broad Republican audience. For instance, Bob Inglis served as U.S. Representative for South Carolina’s 4th district, a distinctly conservative region, from 1993 to 1999 and from 2005 to 2011. He lost the 2010 race after reversing his position on climate change when scientists he talked to convinced him he’d been wrong to deny warming. When Inglis accepted evidence for climate change and advocated for a carbon tax, he became an unelectable Republican in his district. Inglis feels Republicans are hesitant to change their lifestyles. He probably makes a good point, but other dynamics are at work as well.
Capitalism vs. “The Watermelons”
Some conservatives worry that American environmentalists want to shift the country toward socialism. That might sound crazy if you haven’t heard it before, but it’s well-documented. Fearful conservatives have called environmentalists “watermelons”—green on the outside, but red on the inside. And we should remember that producers of climate change denial material like the George C. Marshall institute specifically feared communism.
The United States has no major history of socialism aside from a few figures like Eugene V. Debs and Bernie Sanders, neither of whom won their presidential races in the end. I say this just to suggest that we take our capitalist history into account when thinking about environmental policy. Strategies that work in Denmark may not work in the United States. This might mean focusing on health in America—a less divisive issue than values or even temperature change—when advocating for sufficient environmental regulations. After all, health concerns convinced a Republican administration to found the EPA in the first place.
We can also emphasize the economic reasoning behind environmental policy. Logical economists do not oppose all regulations. My current econ professor, John Taylor, has worked for the previous four Republican administrations and talks to us about how cap-and-trade policies reduce carbon emissions via efficient bargaining. Other economists recommend carbon taxes, which also generate government revenue. Given this type of reasoning, Scott Pruitt’s general stance against environmental regulations is illogical.
Countries with communist vs. democratic socialist vs. more purely capitalist backgrounds shouldn’t need different environmental regulations (after all, air and water work the same everywhere). Still, the way to enact regulations will have to vary in countries with different political histories. I personally believe the end result—improving people’s health and preserving the Earth for future generations—is most important.
At the beginning, I noted that environmental issues can be inherently political. When voters feel the influence of a policy, whether that’s in terms of tax rate or health risks, we’re bound to see people take sides. Still, when it comes to environmental issues, I believe we need first and foremost to reduce pollution. We need to try to make climate issues less polarizing because the United States has a two-party political system, and the majority must agree (or at least compromise) in order to achieving lasting change.
This is no easy task. Not only does the environmental opposition have money and “science,” but the American political climate does not prime our country to embrace regulations. But ultimately, if our policies help give everyone a cleaner, safer place to live, it won’t matter much who did or didn’t embrace “environmentalism” as a movement.
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