Leading Conservatives Seek to Revitalize Environmental Agenda

by Karen Rubin

In a project led by London-based Conservative Environment Network, 14 of the world’s most influential conservatives from politics, business and academia are appealing to traditional conservative values as a way to get fellow conservatives onboard to protect the environment.   

Seeking to revitalize the conservative environmental agenda, Responsibility and Resilience: What the Environment means to Conservatives argues that caring for the environment is fundamental to conservative politics.

Many contributors are well-known environmental advocates: former California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger,  former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, former World Bank President James Wolfensohn, former Marks & Spencer CEO Sir Stuart Rose, Unilever CEO Paul Polman and Kingfisher Group CEO Ian Cheshire. 

The group emphasizes conservative values of economic self-interest rather than liberal values of social or environmental responsibility.

The compendium is the most wide-ranging and ambitious
doctrine on the environment ever to come from business and the conservative movement," says Ben Goldsmith, who chairs the Steering Committee of the Conservative Environment Network. 

Three chapters address "common misconceptions about conservatives and the environment":  

1. Conservatives’ taste for small government leads them to disclaim environmental responsibilities entirely.  

2. Environmentalism means big government.  

3. Environmental improvement is solely a cost to big business rather than a driver of better financial performance

This brief excerpt gives some insight into their thought process:

"State interventions to penalize environmental externalities and reshape the energy market have been seen by many on the Right as an economic deadweight – a deadweight that business and
consumers can scarcely afford. But it is falsehood to think of the physical environment as a cost when it is in fact the source of value on which our economies are built.  

"The debt and pensions crisis have brought home to us the danger of borrowing from the future to pay for the present. No Conservative should advocate doing the same with natural resources. 

"Personal responsibility and economic resilience are rallying cries for Conservatism: yet they are also at the heart of our transition to greater resource efficiency."

Key themes:

  • the health and economic resilience of future society is partly
    rooted in decisions taken today
  • the environment is not a progressive cause but sits within the purview of conservative politics
  • government should aim to facilitate decentralized solutions
    which harness the free market
  • there is no economic security without environmental security
  • resource efficiency is an increasing differentiator of
    successful businesses
  • conservative traditions of competition and innovation are essential to meeting environmental challenges

"The bigger message is that only the  conservative tools of competition and free market are powerful enough to
deliver the environmental security and economic resilience we need for a stable  society. For me, that means the Right must lead on the environment," adds Goldsmith.

Canadian Conservatives Speak Up

High profile members of Canada’s Conservative Party are also speaking up, but for Machiavellian reasons.

Former environment minister Jim Prentice (now vice president at Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce) and Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall said at the annual Manning Network conservatives’ conference: regaining Canada’s reputation of protecting the environment is essential for fending off international criticism and for reaching its energy and economic goals of expanding tar sands. 

Until now, says Wall, Canada has pitched the Keystone pipeline based on the number of jobs it would create, but now it’s time to  "pivot to the environment." If we join with the US to regulate oil and gas emissions, they and other countries would feel a lot better about buying our oil.

Otherwise, Canada’s energy industry could well become uncompetitive as the world moves to rein in emissions. 

Let’s make up with indigenous groups so they’ll go along with the other pipeline we want – Northern Gateway would run from Alberta to the west coast.   

"As conservatives we can’t be in the position of providing our
political rivals with the opportunity to portray us as out of touch with the values of Canadians and the prevailing sentiment of the global community," says Prentice.

"The next wave (of climate-change concern) is building again and the wave will come, and trust me, when it crests on Canada’s shore, it will be at its highest point," said Prentice. "Canada needs to be ready for it, and we as conservatives need to be ready for it."  

Prime Minister Stephen Harper has done everything possible to squelch environmental protection in Canada to maximize tar sands oil and mineral extraction. 

Conservatives’ Biggest Supporters On Board

Indeed, if conservatives don’t come around, they will find themselves increasingly isolated. Even their biggest supporters, big business, are now mostly convinced of the threat of ignoring climate change. In Europe, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, the Paris-based club of 34 industrialized nations, warns of the steep costs of increased carbon pollution.

At the latest World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland an entire day was devoted to panels on climate change. World Bank President Jim Yong Kim cited global warming as the chief contributor to rising global poverty rates and falling GDP in developing nations. 

"Increased  droughts, more unpredictable variability, 100-year floods every two years," are already disrupting Coca-Cola’s 
supply of sugar cane, sugar beets, and citrus for its fruit juices.
"When we look at our most essential ingredients, we see those events as  threats," Jeffrey Seabright, vice president for environment and water resources, told the NY Times.

He reflects the growing view among business leaders and economists that dealing with climate change is an economic imperative, not a cost to business. They see global warming as  contributing to lower GDP, rising food and commodity prices, broken supply chains and increased financial risk, reports the NY Times.

Even the new president of the American Economic Association,  William Nordhaus, is a Yale economist and one of the
world’s foremost experts on the economics of climate change. 

More than two dozen of the biggest corporations – including the five major oil companies – already include a carbon tax in their financial projections.

While these realities are clear to many conservatives in Canada and the UK, they can’t seem to penetrate conservatives in the US Congress. 

Climate Denial

Despite an appeal from some Republican conservatives in the lead-up to the 2012 President election, to "stop retreating in denial and start stepping forward in the competition of ideas," as former GOP Rep. Bob Inglis asked, they continue to dig in.

Evidence comes from the Electricity Security and Affordability Act (H.R. 3826), an ALEC bill, passed last week in the House. Aptly called the Polluter Protection Act, it "would nullify proposed carbon pollution standards for future power plants, and arbitrarily restrict the available technologies that could be considered for any new standards," says the Office of Management and Budget

The only murmur of interest in the US comes from Michigan, where conservatives launched a group to increase renewable energy in the state.

Read Responsibility and Resilience: What the Environment means to Conservatives:

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