A CONVERSATION with FREDERIC C. RICH about GETTING to GREEN
Q: There are lots of books about the environment – what's different about this one?
A: Almost every environmental book is designed to convince the reader that we face environmental problems that are real and urgent – climate change, loss of biodiversity, and the like. They also tell us what is required to solve them, such as limiting carbon emissions or habitat loss. Getting to Green takes for granted that its readers know all this, and instead tackles the practical question of why we aren't making any progress in addressing these problems. Why haven't we as a country been able to take meaningful action to mitigate global warming? Why does environmentalism, despite broad public support, seem stuck in a rut?
Q: And the answer?
A: In a word, politics. Despite the blindingly obvious fact that a healthy environment is something in which liberals and conservatives have exactly the same interest, environmentalism is stuck in what I call the hyper-partisan vortex. So to move forward we have to figure out how this happened. Clean air and water was not a partisan issue in the 1970s and 1980s, so what changed? Understanding how and why we came to be so divided on the environment is the key to fixing things and moving forward.
Q: You spent many years as a lawyer representing big corporations, including big oil companies. Won't people think you are just speaking for big business?
A: Sure, I expect some will. But I also have spent decades deeply involved in the environmental movement, so others will say that I'm just a typical environmentalist trying to convince conservatives to turn Green. Anyone who actually reads the book will see that I'm not just advocating for either side. I write far more openly about the failings and problems of the environmental movement than other Greens have done, but do so from a position of complete solidarity with the movement's goals. And I don't think anyone else has articulated quite so directly why the Republican and conservative positions on the environment are a betrayal of everything that conservatism should stand for.
Q: It sounds like neither side will like the book very much.
A: Yes, I'm expecting that. In the book I talk about how the extremes on both sides – so-called "movement" conservatives and left-wing Greens – like nothing more than to shoot at anyone taking a centrist position. This is part of what makes it so hard for those in Congress to make compromises and do what we need to do to protect the planet. But making compromises and actually doing something to address climate change and other environmental problems is what most people want. I am absolutely confident that the great majority of Green leaders will agree with me that the movement needs to make changes to be more effective and that many conservatives are ready to ditch the aberration of market fundamentalism and reconnect with their long tradition of conservation of nature.
Q: It's hard to believe that Republicans were once champions of the environment. Give me an example.
A: Most of the major environmental laws passed in the 1970s had unanimous support of Republicans in the Senate and majority support from Republicans in the House. Nixon created the EPA on his own motion. Goldwater was a member of the Sierra Club. Reagan and Thatcher got together to fix the hole in the ozone layer. The senior George Bush campaigned to be the "Environmental President" and implemented cap and trade to fix acid rain. I could go on.
Q: That may be, but it seems that today's conservatism is actually defined by opposition to environmentalism.
A: It's only been since the mid-1990s that what many call "market fundamentalism" rose to prominence on the right, with its belief that virtually any environmental regulation is "socialistic," that anything that adds cost to business "kills jobs" and should be resisted, and that private property rights are nearly absolute. This is something new and at odds with deeper conservative values, which would never support trashing the planet in pursuit of the marginal dollar of profit. So part of the solution I advocate is to reposition environmentalism from its current place as a left-wing concern, and instead start making the case for protecting the environment – like Pope Francis recently did – in terms of shared values and moral imperatives. At the very least, we need to build a safe place where conservatives can support sound environmental policies without having to sign on to other parts of a progressive agenda.
Q: So, to get specific, what are some Green positions that you don't agree with, or at least would like to see changed?
A: Let's start with the Keystone pipeline. Notwithstanding their success, for the moment, in blocking Keystone, my view is that Greens invested far too much of their political capital in the fight. It's a pretty ordinary pipeline that would have only a tiny impact on global warming. Greens opposed it as a symbol, attempting to draw a line in the sand on climate change. I don't agree with that strategy; we should focus on things that will actually have a real world impact on the environment.
Q: It really seems like wishful thinking to suggest that today's hard-right conservatives can be turned into conservationists.
A: All we need to break the partisan gridlock is a critical mass of moderates and moderate conservatives to once again prioritize environmental issues. I am not saying that the hard right can be turned, especially in the short term. But you are correct that anti-environmental views have become curiously intractable, almost matters of faith and identity. This means that they cannot be dislodged using statistics or predictions of environmental catastrophe. Instead, we need to recognize the deep cognitive dissonance created by market fundamentalism; there is nothing more conservative than conservation, nothing more morally urgent than reigning in our current appetites to protect the planet and future generations. And, like Nixon going to China, we need a few prominent conservatives to step up and show that you can do the right thing for the planet and still be a solid conservative and patriot.
Q: Do others agree with your approach to this?
A: Yes. It is really important to me that both prominent environmental leaders and respected conservatives accept Getting to Green as a good faith effort to show the way toward reconciliation. You may have noticed that Bob Inglis, a six-term conservative evangelical Congressman from South Carolina, who suffered a primary defeat because of his belief in climate change, has praised the book. He received the Profiles in Courage Award in 2015 from the JFK Library and is a great example of what I think we need. A true conservative of great integrity, who has the courage to say that his values do not permit him to remain silent. He advocates a revenue-neutral carbon tax. And the book's approach also has been praised by political independents, such as Senator Angus King, the Senate's only independent, and by politicians active in the "No-Labels" movement, such as former Senator Evan Bayh. Simon Roosevelt, the great-great-grandson of Republican President Theodore Roosevelt, and one of the country's leading sportsman conservationists, also has endorsed the main messages of Getting to Green. We've seen former Republican Secretaries of State, former GOP EPA administrators, groups of GOP businessmen, and even, most recently, a group of eleven GOP Representatives, all advocating publicly for the party to engage meaningfully to make progress on climate change and other environmental issues. So I think we have real momentum here.
Q: How did you first become interested in the subject of the environment?
A: I was 14 years old at the time of the first Earth Day in 1970, and so like others of my generation, have always carried some of that 1960s idealism. But I really became connected to the movement in the 1980s when I saw the impact of suburban sprawl on the once-rural part of New Jersey where I grew up. Then I moved to upstate New York, where I fell in love with the Hudson River and the Hudson Valley and joined a community of people who have worked together for a century to protect it. My own experience taught me that the most powerful sort of environmentalist is not someone with an abstract interest in policy, but the one who is personally connected with nature.
Q: What types of Green organizations do you support? Are there any who you feel are moving in the direction you advocate in the book?
A: My deepest involvement and support has been with the land trust movement. These are largely local, grass-roots organizations that work to empower landowners and communities to save places that are worthy of conservation, either because of their ecological value or what they mean to those communities. I'm on the board of my local land trust, the Hudson Highlands Land Trust, and I'm the long-time Chair of a prominent regional land trust and environmental advocacy organization, Scenic Hudson. I'm also Vice Chair of the national Land Trust Alliance. I get to travel the country to see the work of our 1,200 members, which range from ranchland and agricultural conservation organizations in the West to urban community garden groups. These organizations (which as of 2010 had permanently protected 47 million acres of land) exemplify what I see as the path forward for the Green movement as a whole: they are local groups deeply embedded in their communities, but also come together to constitute a politically powerful national mass movement. Some of the large national Green organizations also have moved in the direction I advocate: Audubon, for example, has done extensive outreach to conservatives, and Environmental Defense Fund has a long and distinguished track record trying to work with corporations.
Q: So it's an election year, not a particularly propitious time to make the case for a non- or post-partisan approach to anything. Is there any sign that any of the Presidential candidates will engage with environmental issues in the way you are suggesting?
A: It’s hard to imagine that 2016 could be worse for the environment than 2012, when it was almost completely ignored. Neither candidate, nor any journalist, raised global warming in any of the 2012 Presidential debates. The GOP platform went from openness to a market-oriented approach to addressing climate change in 2008, to pretending the issue didn't exist in 2012. In the early 2015 debate among the Republican candidates they spent all of four minutes arguing that addressing climate change will destroy the economy. So there is a huge opportunity for one of the Republicans to distinguish him- or herself as a serious and courageous leader by sending a signal that it's time for the conservatives to reengage with environmental issues. The Pope's highly public positioning of climate change and environment as a moral imperative opens the door, and in my view, it would be a remarkably savvy move for one of the candidates to step through.
Q: Which politicians seem to "get it", in your estimation?
A: Here's the dirty little secret: lots of politicians on the right "get it," but are too fearful to admit it. John McCain and Lindsey Graham get it, and even Newt Gingrich, deep down, gets it. Scores of House Republicans get it (like the eleven who recently introduced a resolution calling for movement on climate change) and hundreds of Congressional staffers, especially younger ones, get it. GOP Governors like George Pataki get it. The daughter of the head of the Christian Coalition, who leads a conservative energy reform group, gets it. Ed Inglis, a six-term conservative from South Carolina gets it – it cost him his seat, but it hasn’t shut him up. Tens of millions of Republican hunters and anglers get it.
Q: I hear you saying that there are places where the values of right and left overlap, a kind of centrist zone where both sides could support environmental progress. But what exactly does this look like, what sort of policies do you see attracting support from both sides?
A: It's a long list. Both sides can support regulatory reform, which would both mitigate the unfair impact of regulation on some landowners and businesses, and make the overall regulatory scheme more effective in meeting its environmental goals. There is a middle ground on energy, including giving up the fiction that we can ban fracking altogether, and instead working for really tough and effective regulation of fracking and methane emissions from gas wells. There is enormous support on both sides for creating incentives and frameworks for public/private partnerships to conserve land and habitat. Even the third rail of climate change is a place where we can find progress, if we focus on meaningful steps, at the local and state as well as federal level, that actually reduce greenhouse gas emissions. I even think that eventually we can come to a place where right and left together will support a revenue-neutral carbon tax.
Q: So what exactly should readers of your book do if they want to help break the partisan gridlock?
A: My book is written for many different audiences. If an important part of your identity is as a conservative, then I just ask that you realize that the doctrine you are hearing from the talking heads at Fox News—and from those who are only interested in promoting the agendas of the coal and petroleum industries—is something new and not truly conservative. Connect with your deeper values and consider whether making a buck today at the cost of your grandchildren's health tomorrow is really consistent with your values. For environmentalists, I ask that you get comfortable taking about our issues in a way that won't scare off the right, and recommit yourselves to grass-roots political action. For everyone, I ask that you get yourselves and children out in nature, and connect with an organization – any type of organization – that is working to protect a specific place. Once you care about a place, and connect with others who care, the rest will follow. If we had 20 million people on the streets on Earth Day 2017, the way we did on Earth Day 1970, the partisan abuse of environmental concern would pop like a pricked balloon. We could then move forward to do the things we must to allow humanity to flourish on this Earth.