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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Unhappy Earth Day

It’s been pretty widely acknowledged that the environmental cause in this country has experienced some bad times lately. But’s it is still a shock to recognize that on this particular Earth Day, the main environment-related initiatives in the news have been Republican efforts to kill off or neuter the Environmental Protection Agency–a Republican creation, as it happens–and to liberalize offshore oil drilling.
To borrow the first line from Bradford Plumer’s rumination in The New Republic on the collapse of climate change legislation: “What the hell went wrong?”
Some would point to internal conflicts and shortcomings in the environmental movement; others to the traumatizing effect of the global economic crisis. The one thing that is crystal clear is that environmental causes, once perhaps the most bipartisan and transideological of all causes, no longer enjoy significant Republican or conservative support; au contraire, as a matter of fact. And this development has occurred very, very recently.
It’s pretty well known that cap-and-trade–or “cap-and-tax” as conservative pols now like to call it–began as a Republican initiative to use market forces, as opposed to command-and-control regulation, to promote environmental improvements, notably in the successful attack on acid rain begun when George H.W. Bush signed the Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990. John McCain was for years the point man in Congress for cap-and-trade. Republican governors like Tim Pawlenty took on bipartisanship state initiatives to deal with climate change. And beyond the purely political circles, the idea that environmental activism was entirely compatible with conservative values seemed to be spreading through much of the last decade. “Creation care” was among the hottest topics among U.S. evangelicals. The Vatican sponsored a conference on climate change in 2007. Even George W. Bush came around to the proposition that man-made factors were almost certainly causing potentially catastrophic climate change.
Then the rock rolled back down the hill. And while you can debate the contributing factors ad nauseum, the most persuasive argument is that bipartisanship on the environment–as on health care and other issues–was a casualty of the conservative/GOP determination, which is now deeply rooted in rank-and-file opinion, to oppose anything supported by Democrats (with powerful interests who profit from the destruction of the environment, of course, promoting this trend with big money and disinformation).
It’s hard to predict whether or when this sudden withdrawal of one of America’s two major political parties from even a rhetorical investment in environmentalism will change; the indicators certainly are not positive, as witnessed by John McCain’s headlong flight from his own record in 2008, and by Tim Pawlenty’s recantation of his climate change initiatives as a terrible mistake.
For the time being, anyone interested in environmental progress had better hope for a Democratic victory in 2012.
UPDATE: I only mentioned in passing the “creation care” movement among conservative evangelical Protestants that was so evident just a few years ago. But the massive backlash in the Christian Right against this movement recently, and the close coordination of the religious backlash to corporate anti-environmentalism, is very well documented by a new report from People for the American Way. It’s kind of terrifying, not just to environmentalists, but to Christians who don’t buy the idea that God has commanded us, through the agency of oil and coal extraction companies, to despoil the earth. It’s certainly grist for reflection on this Good Friday.

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