What to make of the Roosevelt Conservation Caucus

press conference Wednesday in Washington D.C., announcing the Roosevelt Conservation Caucus took me by surprise. Led by Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., a “bicameral” group of Republican congressmen and senators aggressively declared their support for conservation and the environment.

The official line is that the Roosevelt Conservation Caucus will “embrace and promote constructive efforts to resolve conservation and environmental problems.” We’ve read boilerplate mission statements like that before, but some moments during the 38-minute press conference genuinely surprised me.

The modern GOP, despite its reasonably solid history on conservation and environment before the 1980s, has mostly written it off as an issue that Democrats own today. (One exception: Our current divided Congress deserves credit for permanently reauthorizing the Land and Water Conservation Fund this year.)

Suddenly Wednesday, however, we have GOP senators like Richard Burr and Steve Daines declaring that they’re committed to fully funding the Land and Water Conservation Fund. While guys like Lindsey Graham nod in the background?

There were other double-take moments, too, during the press conference. Lisa Murkowski, of Alaska, brought up plastics pollution. Brian Mast, R-Fla.-18th, said, “The No. 1 thing I work on back home is water – where can people swim, where they can fish… it’s what we care about.” Rob Portman, of Ohio, brought up energy efficiency. Someone else mentioned carbon sequestration.

Later, regarding climate change, Graham said, “I’ve traveled around the world and studied this issue, and when nine out of 10 scientists say CO2 emissions are creating a greenhouse gas effect and the planet is warming up, I believe the nine and not the one.

“I have really taken this issue to heart and I would encourage the president to look long and hard at the science and find the solution.”

Again, this coming from any GOP leader. Those paying attention to climate change know President Donald Trump has called it a “hoax” invented by China. (Though on Monday he said his administration is fighting it.)

Social media comments were skeptical Wednesday and suggested pre-election posturing from the GOP. Poll after poll shows environmental protection rates as highly important across a broad swath of voters. In my view it’s been a terrible shame that the environment and science have become partisan, because the land, water, and people ultimately suffer.

Clearly, GOP political wonks somewhere have been scrutinizing polling data, spreadsheets, and social media feeds and have realized ignoring the environment is a political loser. Environment especially resonates with some key demographics, like suburban women, who voted Democrat in the 2018 off-year elections. Said wonks are telling party leadership and the White House that they’d better get ahead of this issue before November 2020.

That’s why a president who almost never misses an opportunity to do the wrong thing on the environment held a press conference on the issue Monday. It’s at least partially why the Roosevelt Conservation Caucus now exists.

But guess what: I really don’t give a damn about the motivations if they begin steering the GOP and the nation in the direction of acknowledging and solving these problems.

A consistent theme among the speakers Wednesday was that we cannot have a healthy environment while destroying the economy, and we need “market-based solutions.”

I at least partially agree with that. Even the most ardent environmentalists will admit that communism never was kind to the environment. And a country with an economy chugging along with well-fed people has more resources and wherewithal to devote to environmental protection.

But I also know it required what some GOPers might consider severe government regulations to achieve the environmental gains the United States enjoyed in the 20th Century. The Migratory Bird Treaty Act saved dozens of bird species by banning the sale of feathers and other avian parts. We have eagles and peregrine falcons because we banned a chemical, DDT. Banning lead shot for ducks and geese has helped waterfowl, other wetlands birds, and water quality. The Clean Water Act stopped rivers from burning and improved fishing nationwide. Air quality is better because the Clean Air Act restricted what industry could release. We’re arguing about whether to hunt wolves and grizzly bears because of the success of the Endangered Species Act.

All of these government regulations occurred during a time of robust economic expansion. Yes, we can have both environmental protection and a robust economy: American history has proven that time and again.

Toward the end of the press conference, Graham said, “I’m tired of playing defense on the environment.”

That’s music to my ears, Sen. Graham. Now, broker some deals with the House Democrats. You may have to swallow some logical regulations in exchange for a market-based solution or two, but that’s the art of compromise.

We heard some mighty quotes yesterday from GOP leadership that I haven’t heard in a while. Now Congress has 16 months before the next election to put those words into sensible action.

Categories: Rob Drieslein

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