Exclusive Interview - Global Warming is a Conservative Issue
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Over the past few weeks, Catholic Online has featured several articles on the issue of global warming. Much of the feedback has been critical because the readership of Catholic Online is largely conservative and issues such as global warming are strongly associated with the left.
The lively discussion on Catholic Online also prompted a lot of input via email, some of which was quite thought-provoking. One of the individuals who wrote to Catholic Online was Rob Sisson, the president of ConservAmerica, an environmental advocacy organization founded by conservatives for conservatives.
At Catholic Online, we decided to talk to Rob Sisson, to get a true conservative's take on the question, why are conservatives so hostile to the general scientific consensus that global warming is a threat to the environment?
Marshall Connolly (COL): Hello Rob, thank you for the interview. I'd first like to ask, what is ConservAmerica and what is your mission?
SISSON: ConservAmerica is the national grassroots organization of Republicans and conservatives who care about environmental protection.
We were founded in 1995 and, today, have members in all 50 states. Our mission is to restore the GOP's great conservation legacy.
COL: Can you tell me a little about that legacy?
SISSON: Republicans have been leaders in conservation policy since the party was founded. The first Republican president, Abraham Lincoln, protected what we now know as Yosemite National Park. The second president, U.S. Grant, created the world's first national park, Yellowstone. Theodore Roosevelt is America's patron saint of conservation. He protected ten percent of all land in the country. Dwight Eisenhower set aside the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, as the last great wilderness in North America. Richard Nixon signed into law nearly every great environmental act we take for granted. Gerald Ford originated fuel standards for automobiles. Ronald Reagan, by pushing for the Montreal Protocol, helped protect the ozone.
John Lacey, a Republican congressman from Iowa and the author of The Lacey Act, is the grandfather of modern fish and game regulations. John Saylor, who represented Pennsylvania during the 1950's and 1960's, was a co-author of The Wilderness Act and champion for conservation.
Others, like Gifford Pinchot, Williams Ruckelshaus, and Russell Train, have left their mark while serving in Republican administrations.
For a variety of reasons-almost totally political-the conservative movement ceded environmental protection to the other side in the 1990's. This, despite the famous admonition by Russell Kirk that "Nothing is more conservative than conservation."
Today, we see a new wave of conservation-minded conservatives pushing to restore our historic legacy. Fiscal conservatives have rediscovered the fact that conservation, efficiency, and sustainability results in lower cost government in the long term. Faith conservatives are revisiting the command to care for creation. Hunters, anglers, and ranchers are witnessing the disruption of their way of life caused by unfettered development. Entrepreneurs see jobs and wealth creation in innovations designed to help us live with cleaner energy and in a cleaner environment.
As a Catholic, I am thrilled that the Holy Father, Pope Francis, has been very clear that creation care is a priority of living our faith. His leadership will help create 'safe space' for secular conservative leaders to discuss and solve environmental issues facing us today.
COL: Why is your work important?
The widely held perception on the right side of the political spectrum is that environmental groups are part of a broader progressive agenda.
That perception is not entirely the fault of green groups, and is more an outgrowth of the Republican Party's migration away from its historic conservation platform. We provide a home for conservation-minded voters who are social or fiscal conservatives. For example, we are the only environmental/political organization that frames some conservation issues in a pro-life context. Other groups simply cannot message that way without risking membership and funding.
This 'perception gap' makes it very difficult for Republicans to work with, or trust, environmental groups. ConservAmerica works only with Republican lawmakers. This narrow focus means elected officials trust that we don't have a hidden agenda, and that our issues and messaging have a rock-solid conservative foundation.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, after the 2010 climate legislation died in the U.S. Senate, said, "Environmental groups do a really good job of getting their members to call, write, and email us on issues. The problem is, those aren't the people who vote for Republicans." ConservAmerica, with its grassroots network of Republican voters, solves that problem, and fills a necessary niche in the conservation movement.
COL: Most conservatives tend to be skeptical of claims of global warming and other environmental concerns. Why do you think this is and how can we address it?
SISSON: The skepticism is a function of the right-wing echo chamber and the enormous amount of funding used to mislead the public. Several of the professional skeptics are the same people who spent the 1970's arguing that tobacco wasn't addictive and wasn't harmful to human health. The strategy is the same as the old tobacco industry playbook--just keep sowing doubt and misdirection to permit fossil fuel companies to maximize earnings.
The tobacco industry offers a lesson not-yet-learned by fossil fuel companies, think-tanks, and right wing media. The Global Tobacco Industry Settlement penalized tobacco companies more than $200 billion over 25 years. I foresee some fossil fuel companies having a "Come to Jesus" moment in the near future, where they will unilaterally enter into an agreement to help eliminate greenhouse gas emissions, and fund significant adaptation requirements. Sooner or later, some enterprising state attorney general is going to try to make a name for himself by suing the industry or think tanks which knowingly misled the country on climate change.
COL: Is there a way for conservatives recover this issue?
SISSON: Absolutely. Every major Christian denomination in the United States has adopted a statement on climate change and our duty to address the situation. Our new Holy Father, Pope Francis, has been very clear that creation care is one of our prime responsibilities. The Catholic Church is particularly concerned with the world's poor, who are now or will soon be impacted by global climate change. The pro-life movement, a key conservative building block, could grow significantly by bringing creation care into its portfolio. So many people struggle with the inconsistency of a movement that calls itself pro-life, but does not care about the 600,000 babies born in the U.S. each year with unsafe levels of mercury in their systems, or the human suffering in other parts of the world caused by a changing climate. Becoming fully pro-life, or whole life, could create the most meaningful political force in the country.
The U.S. Department of Defense has, on multiple occasions, identified climate change as one of the top national security threats facing us.
It is odd to see conservatives in Congress fighting to restore sequestration budget cuts to the Pentagon, but ignoring or outright opposing consideration of the impact of climate change on our military preparedness. Addressing climate change should be a priority for defense hawks.
Fiscal conservatives, too, should be leading policy discussions on how we address climate change. If 2012 was a indication of what we can expect in future years, our economy is squarely in the cross-hairs of climate change. From droughts to wildfires to storms, an enormous price was paid by Americans last year. By most accounts, that price tag is going to continue to rise.
Fighting climate change and pollution should be a libertarian priority. Ronald Reagan said, "Many laws protecting environmental quality have promoted liberty by securing property against the trespass of pollution." Again, I point to the 600,000 American babies who are poisoned while still in their mothers' wombs each and every year by toxins released from burning fossil fuels. Short of abortion, can there be any greater infringement upon someone's liberty?
COL: Do you see a way forward whereby we can preserve our environment while responsibly managing our natural resources to sustain a positive pattern economic growth?
SISSON: The two are not, and have never been, mutually exclusive.
Theodore Roosevelt, later echoed by Goldwater, Nixon, and Reagan, said, ""To waste, to destroy, our natural resources, 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."
The environmental problems that face us today could best be addressed by unleashing the free market to solve them. It is a blind spot for conservative leaders. With innovation and invention, come jobs, wealth creation, and a new American century. But, we need our leaders to champion that focus.
COL: You said, "The environmental problems that face us today could best be addressed by unleashing the free market to solve them."
Although I am a huge fan of the "unleashing the free market," I admit that when it comes to the environment, the free market--meaning as I understand, a market unimpeded by government interference, does not have a very good record on the environment. Can you clarify what you mean here?
SISSON: Thanks for the opportunity to clarify.
First, U.S. utility companies have more than $2.25 trillion on their balance sheets reserved for capital investments. For all practical purposes, they haven't spent a dime since the 2008 market collapse. They won't spend that money until the government provides a road map to our energy future. They don't want to invest in coal or wind or geothermal, if that isn't the direction that will be supported by national energy policy. Once we have settled on a long term energy strategy, that money will be invested and be the largest private stimulus of our economy ever
Right now, there are 30 states with some form of renewable energy standard. The federal government could establish one national standard, making it easier for energy companies plan and meet the goal. It would also create more efficient markets. Right now, with each state establishing energy policy, an utility company must create a separate corporate structure and bureaucracy for each state.
Regardless of the policy adopted to encourage clean energy (carbon tax, renewable energy standard, cap and trade, or assorted permutations), companies will rise to the challenge, innovate, develop, and produce the necessary technology to meet or exceed the goals. When President George H. W. Bush signed cap and trade into law to manage SOX and NOX, naysayers said it would be the death knell of the American economy and that the goals could not be met. Well, not only did U.S. companies sprint pass the goal in about half the expected time, our economy enjoyed a two decade expansion beginning with the implementation of the policy.
Newt Gingrich, in his upcoming book on environmental entrepreneurism, calls for "X" prize-like incentives, over subsidies or centralized command-and-control. Gingrich reasons that the lure of a huge cash prize will set tinkerers in garages, labs, and factory floors working towards solutions for our biggest problems.
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An effective regulatory environment is necessary, but policies that encourage the market to work towards goals over centralized command-and-control regimens have, historically, been more efficient.
Rather than government picking one solution, thousands of companies attack the problem from different perspectives, and the best solution wins.
COL: You appear to be convinced of the claims of global warming. At one time I, personally, was not. Now I am. What about you? What convinced you?
SISSON: The greatest lesson my dad taught me is to know what I don't know. My degree is in economics, not science. [About] 99% of accredited climate scientists report that global warming is real and that man's activities have caused it to accelerate. My reaction, as a conservative, is to accept that consensus and ask, "Okay, what is the potential impact on our way of life, and what can we do about it?"
Governor Huntsman said it another way, when he asked, "If 98 doctors out of 100 told you that you had cancer and needed surgery, you'd have that surgery wouldn't you?" To be conservative is to be risk averse. In the case of climate change, thus far, we're ignoring the risk at our own peril and that of future generations.
When I talk to people who are outright deniers or mild skeptics, I ask, "What is the source of your information on climate change?" Nine times out of ten, they've based their opinion on rhetoric they've consumed from the right wing echo chamber, not sound science. When possible, I try to introduce them to a climate scientist based at a public university in their state. I avoid, at all costs, any sense of confrontation in these interactions. I respect individuals and recognize that everyone is the sum of his or her unique experiences.
Every U.S. president since Richard Nixon has discussed global warming.
Ronald Reagan was faced with the problem of ozone depletion. The White House science experts told him that action had to be taken, or there would be dire physical consequences. His political staff argued to do nothing, that tackling ozone depletion had no political pay-off for the president. Reagan sided with the scientists and ordered his negotiating team to push to complete the Montreal Protocol. To this day, the Montreal Protocol has prevented the release of more greenhouse gas emissions than any other government act.
COL: Please feel free to add anything you wish. Also, give me a little background on yourself.
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SISSON: I served two terms as the mayor of Sturgis, Michigan, and recently rejoined the city commission. A longtime board member of several economic development groups, I was Michigan's Small Business Advocate of the Year in 2000. In 2008, as a result of sustainable practices launched by the city while I was mayor, I was named Michigan Environmental Leader of the Year.
I'm married to Theresa, a pharmaceutical research scientist, and we're the very proud parents of twin 15 year sons. We're active in our parish, Holy Angels, and I'm member of Knights of Columbus.
I begin and end each day with an intercessory prayer to Saints Francis and Kateri, asking for guidance and help in my work. As a Catholic and an environmental leader, I am thrilled at the Holy Spirit's recent work inside the conclave. Pope Francis signaled in the first days of his pontificate that he will build upon the creation care legacies of his immediate predecessors, Benedict XVI and Blessed John Paul II.
The Catholic Church is poised, in the U.S., to defuse political partisanship on so many issues, and restore communitarian conservatism to our public square. The Church, and people of every faith, must call upon their elected leaders to put the good of the nation first--ahead of party and personal ambition--and hold them accountable.
Rob, thank you so much for your time. I am sure our readers will enjoy reading and commenting on this interview.
Here is a Christian produced video that Rob Sisson shared with us, to pass along to you. Follow the link and enjoy.
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