Oceans of Opportunity: A Roadmap for Conservative Environmentalism

The president who laid the cornerstones for the National Park Service was Teddy Roosevelt, a Republican. The president who created the Environmental Protection Agency was Richard Nixon, a Republican. The president who set aside nearly 335,000 square miles of protected marine reserve and who, according to the Pew Research Center’s environmental director, did “more to protect unique areas of the world’s oceans than any other person in history” was none other than George W. Bush, a Republican (in case you forgot).

That exceptional legacy should drive conservatives to re-energize our environmentalism. The need is real.

To begin, we must remember that the environment is not a liberal dominion. Every day, hundreds of thousands of conservatives visit one of the nation’s 58 national parks. For my two cents, I’ll never forget hiking the Murphy Loop at Canyonlands in 2004: the experience offered great exercise matched to beautiful views. Regardless, our national parks offer a guide for conservative environmentalism: each park serves both nature and individual fulfillment. It’s a mutually beneficial approach that shows human interests and environmental interests are not mutually exclusive.

At present, however, we’re neglecting urgent environmental concerns. Conservatives need to look beyond global warming. Many worthy environmental causes are struggling to attract crucial support. Oceanic conservation offers one significant opportunity, and it’s one I know personally. Once skeptical of environmental advocacy — believing it to be the haunt of crazed hippies and fanatical anti-capitalists — my uncle and brother, both marine biologists, persuaded me our disagreements need not preclude alternate agreements. We agreed to disagree on some issues and find consensus on others.

The need for environmental cooperation is obvious. At a basic level, whether conservative or liberal, most of us eat fish and we should thus care about what we’re putting in our mouths. Putting this pragmatism into practice, my uncle’s organization, Ocean Alliance, has pioneered the use of drones (“snot bots”) to analyze toxins in whale mucus. Analyzing whales (masters of the food chain) absent the stress of human interaction, snot bots are MRI machines for oceanic health. I can conceive of no conservative opposition to this innovative research. Even if we disagree on how to respond to the findings of that research, objective research is morally pure and worth pursuing.

Each national park serves both nature and individual fulfillment — a mutually beneficial, and conservative, approach that shows human interests and environmental interests are not mutually exclusive

Another opportunity for conservative environmentalism is in the business world. Take musician Pharrell Williams, who has set up a clothing fashion brand made from plastic pollutants in the oceans. The line, G-Star Raw, encapsulates the preferencing of environmental pragmatism over protest. After all, while conservatives might disagree with Pharrell’s politics, he exemplifies an unconventional union of entrepreneurship and environmental protection.

Yet conservatives must also embrace introspection on the environment. For a start, all conservatives should read Jonathan Adler’s 2013 paper, “Conservative Principles for Environmental Reform.” Adler observes that conservatives have “largely failed to engage in meaningful discussion about how the nation’s environmental goals may be best achieved.” Offering solutions, Adler outlines how local environmental regulations are preferable to Federal regulations in serving businesses and the environment alike, and why stronger environmental-abuser penalties rather than overly broad regulations make sense.

This is only a start. Other conservative ideas will be necessary if we are to challenge liberals for the environmentalist mantle. For one, we should offer to remove subsidies and tax incentives for fossil fuel producers in return for a reciprocal cut in green energy subsidies: doing so would let the market decide social outcomes. In return for regulatory reform that focuses on malicious abusers and not legitimate businesses, we should support the hiring of more criminal investigators to punish environmental criminality. We should also act globally – including via treaty – to protect endangered marine wildlife. A worldwide ban on shark finning similar to the 1980s effort that restricted whaling is one possibility.

Of course, our national disagreements on the environment will continue. Global warming is the big one, but there are many others. Nevertheless, progress is possible, if conservatives and liberals are willing to look for it together.

Tom Rogan is a Senior Contributor for Opportunity Lives and writes for National Review. He is a panelist on The McLaughlin Group and a senior fellow at the Steamboat Institute. Follow him on Twitter @TomRtweets.