OPED: How to sell conservatives on the environment

Mark Buchanan
Bloomberg View (TNS)

The presidency of Donald Trump is threatening to be a disaster for the environment. To limit the damage, environmentalists must learn how to talk to a group that they haven’t always courted: conservatives.

Brynn Kelly of Wrightsville paddles a rented kayak on Lake Redman last month. Brynn, 17, has written to Gov. Tom Wolf urging him to make the Chesapeake Bay Clean Water Blueprint a greater priority for the state. Dawn J. Sagert photo

With Republican backing, Trump has set about nixing regulations on a host of environmental issues. He has annulled regulations preventing industries from leaking chemicals into wetlands, rivers and streams and looks set to roll back automobile fuel efficiency standards. He wants to slash the budget of the Environmental Protection Agency and has appointed an EPA head who doesn’t believe that humans are responsible for climate change.

From this and the media, one could get the impression that conservatives and Republicans are pretty much unanimous on such issues.

Yet the kind of deregulation that Trump is pursuing doesn’t necessarily reflect conservative values. As Ronald Reagan put it, preserving the environment is “not a partisan challenge; it’s common sense.”

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More than a dozen significant conservative groups agree. ConservAmerica — known before 2012 as Republicans for Environmental Protection — recently unveiled a proposal to give tax breaks to companies that produce energy with zero carbon dioxide emissions. The Michigan Conservative Energy Forum fights utilities’ attempts to block the growth of solar energy, while Conservatives for Energy Freedom works to support renewable and decentralized energy sources.

Learning how the views of these conservatives differ from typical liberal orthodoxy might be key to building a larger coalition.

In a recent study, for example, sociologists David Hess and Kate Pride Brown found that conservatives on both sides of the environmental debate tend to appeal to the same set of values: national security, small government, free markets, personal liberty and job creation. Framing issues in such terms can thus be useful. Psychological studies indicate that when protecting the environment is cast as being about defending the purity of nature, expressing patriotism or obeying authority — or when the message comes from other conservatives — they respond much more favorably.

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For this reason, pro-environment conservative groups could be decisive. As Republicans have moved strongly to the right, sociologist Aaron McCright argues, such groups have occupied the abandoned center. This actually leaves them well-positioned to recruit other conservatives, cooperate on specific policies with more liberal groups and help dispel the notion that being on the right means you must agree with Trump’s policies.

At the state and local level, where officials must deal with the practical consequences of climate change, many do very much care about the environment.

To that end, liberal groups must be willing to cooperate with, rather than criticize, their counterparts at the other end of the political spectrum — a sort of goodwill that ConservAmerica President Rob Sisson says isn’t always forthcoming.

Especially now, the environment needs all the allies it can get, and conservatives are probably the most valuable.

— Mark Buchanan, a physicist and science writer, wrote this for Bloomberg View. Readers may email him at