07.30.14

Environmental Protection Was Once a Top Priority of Republicans

As delivered on the Senate floor

Mr. President, I rise today for the seventy-sixth time to urge my colleagues that it is time for us to wake up to the growing threats of climate change.  Not a single state remains unaffected by the unprecedented changes we are already seeing, driven by the excessive carbon pollution that we continue to dump into our oceans and atmosphere. 

Yet in Washington, our Republican colleagues either parrot the polluter line that climate change is just a hoax, or stay silent. No one will step forward.

Mr. President, it was not always this way.  Environmental protection was once a top priority of the Republican Party. Seems remarkable now, but it’s true.  In the early 1970s, the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, and the Endangered Species Act were all passed with broad bipartisan support, and signed by a Republican President.  In the 1980s and 1990s, bipartisan majorities voted to strengthen those laws, led by Rhode Island’s Republican Senator, John Chafee – who served as chairman of the Environment and Public Works Committee and whose seat I now have the honor to hold.

Conservation and stewardship were once fundamental principles of American conservatism.  From seminal thinkers of the conservative movement to great Republican leaders of the twentieth century, the conservative ideal included a commitment to interests of future generations.

Today, under a relentless barrage of unlimited corporate spending in our elections, much and perhaps most of it by polluters, the interests of future generations have taken a back seat to the interests of the oil companies and coal barons.  The disastrous Citizens United Supreme Court decision let polluters cast their dark shadow over Republicans in Congress who might otherwise work with Democrats on curbing their carbon pollution. 

[Edmund Burke chart]

Edmund Burke, an Irish-born Member of the British Parliament, is considered by many the father of modern conservatism.  Sir Winston Churchill called him “a foremost apostle of Liberty.”  Burke was a staunch defender of our American Colonies and his statue stands here in Washington today.  His 1790 conservative manifesto, Reflections on the Revolution in France, cautioned that we are but “temporary possessors” of our society.  If individuals are “unmindful of what they have received from their ancestors, or of what is due to their posterity,” he wrote, “[n]o one generation could link with another.  Men would become little better than flies of a summer.”

In our case, flies of a carbon-fueled summer.

[Russell Kirk chart]

Russell Kirk was a Distinguished Scholar at the Heritage Foundation, who none other than President Ronald Reagan dubbed “the prophet of American conservatism.”  He wrote a 1970 piece for the Baltimore Sun, “Conservation Activism is a Healthy Sign.”

“Nothing,” Kirk wrote, “is more conservative than conservation.”

The noted essayist and Kentucky farmer Wendell Berry—known for what The American Conservative magazine called his “unshakable devotion to the land, to localism, and to the dignity of traditional life,” wrote in 1993:  “Our destruction of nature is not just bad stewardship, or stupid economics, or a betrayal of family responsibility; it is the most horrid blasphemy.”

(Berry would also remind us in this chamber that “[w]hether we and our politicians know it or not, Nature is a party to all our deals and decisions, and she has more votes.”)

[TR chart]

No figure in American history embodied the conservative value of conservation more than President Theodore Roosevelt.  Roosevelt resented the “malefactors of great wealth,” as he called them, the timber and mining interests whose, and I quote, “selfish and shortsighted greed seeks to exploit [our natural resources] in such fashion as to ruin them and thereby to leave our children and our children’s children heirs only to an exhausted and impoverished inheritance.”  To Roosevelt, this great land of ours was the birthright of all Americans—past, present, and future—to be used, to be sure, in achieving our destiny, but not wasted. 

“To waste, to destroy, our natural resources,” he wrote to Congress in 1907, “to skin and exhaust the land instead of using it so as to increase its usefulness, will result in undermining in the days of our children the very prosperity which we ought by right to hand down to them.”

That is a sentiment echoed by Republican presidents throughout our history, including President Dwight Eisenhower, whose 1961 farewell address invoked this national legacy:

As we peer into society’s future, we—you and I, and our government—must avoid the impulse to live only for today, plundering, for our own ease and convenience, the precious resources of tomorrow.  We cannot mortgage the material assets of our grandchildren without risking the loss also of their political and spiritual heritage.

Republican President Gerald Ford, who once worked actually as a national park ranger, said this in 1975:  “We have too long treated the natural world as an adversary rather than as a life-sustaining gift from the Almighty.  If man has the genius to build, which he has, he must also have the ability and the responsibility to preserve.”

[Ronald Reagan Chart]

And of course, Mr.  President, no one is more revered by today’s Republican Party than Ronald Reagan.  His conservative credentials are unassailable and GOP candidates for elected office strive mightily to out-Reagan each other at every turn.  In 1984, Reagan put this question to his fellow Republicans:

What is a conservative after all but one who conserves, one who is committed to protecting and holding close the things by which we live? . . . And we want to protect and conserve the land on which we live—our countryside, our rivers and mountains, our plains and meadows and forests.  That is our patrimony.  That is what we leave to our children.  And our great moral responsibility”,  Reagan said,  “is to leave it to them either as we found it or better than we found it.”

President Ronald Reagan’s words would make him a fringe liberal candidate in today’s extremist Republican Party. 

And, in Congress we have been boxed in by a barricade of special-interest propaganda and were refuse to admit the plain evidence piling up before our eyes.  We know, with ever-greater certainty, what our carbon pollution is doing to the climate, what it’s doing to our atmosphere, and what it’s doing to our oceans..  And we know, with ever-greater certainty, what that means for the planet and future generations.  What do Republicans in Congress todayhave to say to our heirs,to our children, and grandchildren?

“[C]atastrophic global warming is a hoax,” says one of my Republican colleagues. [Inhofe]

“It’s not proven by any stretch of the imagination,” says another. [Johnson]

A third dismisses the issue altogether, saying, “A lot of this is condescending elitism.” [Roberts]

That’s the voice of today’s Republican Party.

But what does the next generation have to say back to these Republican voices of denial?  More than half of young Republican voters said they would describe a politician who denies climate change is happening as “ignorant,” “out-of-touch,” or “crazy.”, not my words, their words in the poll.“Ignorant,” “out-of-touch,” or “crazy.”; that’s what the next generation say back to the Republican voices of denial.

Unfortunately, if you are a Republican in Congress today it’s more likely than not that you either hold that view or are afraid to say otherwise.  According to one analysis, 58 percent of congressional Republicans in the 113th Congress have denied or questioned the overwhelming scientific consensus that the Earth’s oceans and atmosphere are changing in unprecedented ways, driven by our carbon pollution.  This includes, I am sad to report, every single Republican member of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works. And where this is not denial, there is silence.

Outside these barricaded walls, it is different.  Outside Congress, more and more Republicans acknowledge the threat of climate change and call for responsible solutions. 

Former members of Congress, free now from the polluters’ thrall, implore their colleagues to return to their conservative principles.  Former Representative Bob Inglis, for example, invokes the tenets of conservative economics. Here’s his quote:

If you’re a conservative, it is time to step forward and engage in the climate and energy debate because we have the answer—free enterprise. . . . Conservatives understand that we must set the correct incentives, and this should include internalizing pollution and other environmental costs in our market system.  We tax income but we don’t tax emissions.  It makes sense to conservatives to take the tax off something you want more of, income, and shift the tax to something you want less of, emissions.

Sherwood Boehlert [pronounced Bo-lert] and Wayne Gilchrest, former Republican representatives from New York and Virginia, argue for a market-based approach to reducing carbon pollution. Here’s what they say:

We could slash our debt by making power plants and oil refineries pay for the carbon emissions that endanger our health and environment.  This policy”, they write, “would strengthen our economy, lessen our dependence on foreign oil, keep our skies clean—and raise a lot of revenue.” 

Top advisors to former Republican presidents have joined the chorus. 

William D.  Ruckelshaus, Lee M.  Thomas, William K.  Reilly, and Christine Todd Whitman all headed the Environmental Protection Agency during Republican administrations.  They recently testified before the Environment and Public Works Committee that it is time to get serious about climate change.  Here’s how they put it in a New York Times op-ed. They wrote:

As administrators of the E.P.A under Presidents Richard M. Nixon, Ronald Reagan, George Bush and George W. Bush, we held fast to common-sense conservative principles — protecting the health of the American people, working with the best technology available and trusting in the innovation of American business and in the market to find the best solutions for the least cost.

These former officials recognize both the wisdom of properly pricing carbon, and the truculence of the opponents that stand in the way of progress:  “A market-based approach, like a carbon tax would be the best path to reducing greenhouse-gas emissions” they say “The best path”, but they say, “that is unachievable in the current political gridlock in Washington...” I would interject that that political gridlock is the product of big-spending polluters that profit from the gridlock that they create. But let me continue with what the EPA Administrators said.  “We must continue efforts to reduce the climate-altering pollutants that threaten our planet.  The only uncertainty about our warming world, they wrote, is how bad the changes will get, and how soon.  What is most clear is that there is no time to waste.” Four Republican EPA Administrators.

One day, Mr. President, folks are going to look back at this time and we are all going to be judged very harshly, with all the dread power that history has to inflict on wrong.  The polluters and their instruments will be judged harshly.  And the Republican Party will be judged harshly for letting itself be led astray, by polluters, from its most basic conservative values.

Unless they step up, Republicans will leave, to borrow language from Russell Kirk, “[t]he principle of real leadership ignored, the immortal objects of society forgotten, practical conservatism degenerated into mere laudation of private enterprise, economic policy almost wholly surrendered to special interests.” That’s about as good a description as where they are right now, as I could muster, and it comes from the conservative, Russell Kirk.

We can’t do this alone, not with the numbers that we have. Republicans and Democrats alike must approach this climate problem head-on, with the full conviction of our ideals, but workingtogether, working in good faith, and working on a common platform of fact and common sense, to protect the American people and our American economy from the looming effects of carbon pollution.  We must rise to our duty and place our own natural resources, our own American international reputation, and our legacy to future American generations, first, ahead of the poisonous influence of the polluters that so dominates this debate now.

I yield the floor.