A quest for ‘green liberty’: How America’s eco-republicans are trying to reclaim the right

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By Devin Hartman

Originally published in Corporate Knights | January 25, 2024

Corporate Knights reached out to conservatives in Canada, the U.S. and the U.K. who are hoping to steer their parties toward a more sustainable future. We asked all three the same question: what is your prescription for green conservatives? Read our introduction here.

Political movements are ironic, indeterminate, inspiring and infuriating. Conservatism and environmentalism exemplify how movements’ identities and relationship to each other evolve, often dramatically. A century ago, the two intersected regularly. Over the past decade, both movements have strayed from their roots and each other. Yet the underlying political and economic conditions in the United States clamour for reunion, where conservatives seize the opportunity to lead on environmental issues.

Republicans have a proud environmental legacy, epitomized by Theodore Roosevelt’s commitment to land and wildlife conservation in the early 1900s. Conservative scholars, such as those at the Property and Environment Research Center, were at the forefront of market-based solutions to fishery depletion, biodiversity loss, land degradation, water scarcity and pollution. President Ronald Reagan signed the Montreal Protocol to resolve ozone layer depletion, which former UN secretary-general Kofi Annan called “perhaps the single most successful international agreement to date.”

The initial climate movement worked with prominent Republicans like John McCain toward sensible policy, such as emissions pricing to reduce carbon 80% by 2050. A decade later, the American environmental agenda was calling for full decarbonization in the 2030s using aggressive technology mandates, risky bans and massive public spending. Contemporary environmentalism became synonymous with one word: sacrifice. Sacrifice is, quite literally, the antithesis of conservative nomenclature. As Republican pollster Frank Luntz notes, green activists message on fear, but conservatives respond to opportunity. Unsurprisingly, the modern environmental movement alienated conservatives, who viewed it as a threat to opportunity.

Conservatism, for its part, has waded into a protectionist mindset, diluted its fiscal responsibility swagger, and descended into the culture-war trap. This posture rallied a populist subset of the conservative base and benefited some Republicans in primary elections. But it is leaving a wake of economic regret, alienating the rest of the electorate and costing Republicans dearly in general elections.

Fortunately, a growing wave of eco-Republicans championing the idea of “green liberty” may be forging a new path forward.

The accidental environmentalists

When American conservatives think of environmental policy today, they picture draconian fossil fuel bans, heavy-handed regulations and fiscal recklessness. It is hard to blame them. Whether you watch Fox News or read The Economist, the climate agenda has one unequivocal association: big government. The crown jewel of Democrats’ climate agenda, the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) of 2023, primarily raises taxes to subsidize what the private sector intends to build already. Remarkably, a single category of regulatory reform – electric transmission – would achieve greater emission reductions than the IRA and actually benefit the economy.

Conservatives seldom consider that policies compatible with their economic philosophy would achieve better environmental outcomes.

Ironically, conservative policy is to thank for the bulk of U.S. carbon reductions. Even climate-skeptic conservatives have become accidental environmentalists. Climate progress actually blossomed under President Donald Trump, who was wrong on the science but right to let the private sector lead. Despite the rhetoric, markets replaced more coal with clean energy under Trump than under any preceding administration.

By the end of 2020, primarily market forces, in addition to the pandemic and policy factors, drove emissions from energy consumption 24% below 2005 levels, exceeding the target of the 2009 Waxman-Markey bill, the most comprehensive climate package to pass either congressional chamber. The power industry outpaced the target of the most ambitious federal regulation, President Barack Obama’s Clean Power Plan. Competitive power-sector reforms – a product of the George W. Bush era – induced clean energy expansion that displaced polluting legacy plants. Similar conservative deregulation of the transportation sector and free trade policies helped propel cleaner industrial practices in America than what would have occurred abroad.

In the 2010s, market forces pivoted from incidentally to intentionally lowering emissions. Corporate clean energy purchasing led the way, with volumes rising 658% from 2016 to 2021. The greening of corporations went beyond conventional cost and risk management, signifying a profound shift in business milieus driving markets toward environmental improvement without government coercion.

This greening of the invisible hand warrants rethinking the environmental role of government to empower private markets rather than control them. To achieve future emissions cuts, markets need better information and less red tape. Consider that regulatory approvals to build new power plants, if they ever happen, take more than a decade in most regions. The exception is Texas, the freest energy system in the country, where plants develop in two to three years. Texas now leads the country in clean energy investment.

This leads to one simple truth: policies compatible with a conservative ethos are the climate imperative.

The deliberate environmentalists

For conservatives to become explicit environmental leaders again, the issue must be a winner at the ballot box. Fortunately, it is becoming just that. Since 2015, the electorate increasingly rewards candidates with strong environmental reputations and punishes those without. The importance of climate change to independent voters, who decide general elections, was a strong predictor of how they voted in the 2020 presidential and congressional elections.

This broad sentiment fomented a new conservative ecosystem known as the “eco-right.” In one decade, this subset went from niche groups like republicEn and ConservAmerica to boasting advocacy powerhouses like the ClearPath Foundation, Citizens for Responsible Energy Solutions, Conservative Energy Network and the American Conservation Coalition.

The free-market R Street Institute was founded in 2012 over a disagreement on climate change with the Heartland Institute. Similarly, ex-Heritage Foundation staffers started the Conservative Coalition for Climate Solutions. These new think tanks, plus the long-standing American Action Forum, have been driving research on the nexus of environmental improvement and economic freedom.

Beginning in 2016, the eco-right ushered in a slew of bills on energy innovation and nature-based climate solutions. Pro-climate legislation, including the Energy Act of 2020 and the Nuclear Energy Innovation Capabilities Act, was signed into law by climate-skeptic Trump because of appealing economics and conservative credibility. Conversely, eco-right members stopped Trump’s coal bailout by showcasing how conservative energy policy should reduce regulation and encourage competition, not subsidize the past.

By 2021, the eco-right spearheaded the rise of the House Conservative Climate Caucus to champion uniquely conservative climate solutions. At 81 members, it has become one of the largest Republican caucuses. Under President Joe Biden, eco-right engagement elevated permitting reform to a top-tier congressional Republican priority. This bore fruit in the Fiscal Responsibility Act of 2023. Eco-right research and organizing also propelled bipartisan regulatory reforms to expedite power-plant-grid interconnection, the largest barrier to clean energy in many regions.

The eco-right also secured various state legislative wins, including pro-market Texas laws to reduce gas flaring and unleash geothermal, as well as climate resilience improvements to insurance, water and natural infrastructure policy in Florida.

The secret sauce is not so secret: pair good economic policy with positive environmental outcomes.

Conservative environmentalism reverses environmentalism’s economic stigma. It accentuates economic and environmental responsibility, not harming one more than it benefits the other. It thrives where business is viewed as friend, not foe. It excels when progress is measured by environmental results, not public spending. It appeals to voters when billed as opportunity, not rooted in fear. In other words, conservative environmentalism reunites the lost core of conservatism and environmentalism under the banner of green liberty.

Conservative environmentalism

The road to redemption will be bumpy. Environmentalism and conservatism have, in many regards, lost their way.

The environmental movement is ripe for bifurcation between symbolists and pragmatists. The litmus test is permitting. New progressive groups like the Institute for Progress and pragmatists like the Breakthrough Institute are leading reform.

And if Republicans are to reclaim the lost art of winning, they seem more likely to do so behind climate-concerned economic champions, who lead Biden in the polls by a wider margin than Trump. After last November’s Republican thumping, Senator Mitt Romney restated conservatives’ winning issue: the economy, not divisive social issues. Given the electorate’s growing environmental preferences and the mainstay of economic concerns, the path to conservatives reclaiming leadership requires a return to freer and greener market principles.

All told, the history of environmentalism and conservatism is that of estranged siblings. They were close as kids, grew apart, but remain family. They squabble now, but as they mature, reconciliation is destiny.

Maturity hardly comes to mind in today’s culture war. But political necessity is an unstoppable force. Should conservatives recommit to economic liberty and equate it with the environment, conservative environmentalism may be reborn. Environmentalists, for their part, need to refocus on what matters: results. To regain their identities, environmentalism and conservatism need look no further than their family tree.

Devin Hartman is the director of energy and environmental policy at the R Street Institute, a free-market think tank headquartered in Washington, D.C.