The Climate in Emergency

A weekly blog on science, news, and ideas related to climate change

TR, Where Are You Now?


I said earlier this week that there is no point in my doing a profile of any Republican candidate for President, because our interest here lies in identifying (and supporting) those candidates who are serious on climate and at present no Republican candidate is. I also said that I very much hope that will change.

I do not say that just because I want all political leaders to do something about climate change, nor even because I want environmentalists to become a voting block impossible to ignore. Both of those are true, but more important is the fact that although I personally lean towards the political left, I know not everyone does–and not everyone should. There are important things that liberal political philosophies do not do very well. There are people whose needs liberal political leaders do not serve. If the Republican party could develop its own version of environmentalism, a competing vision of climate sanity, it might bring something to the table that has so far been missing.

It might seem strange to talk about Republican environmentalism, but there is nothing inherently anti-environmental about the core principles of that party. Climate change will be financially disastrous, so shouldn’t fiscal conservatism mean climate sanity? The Republicans have long favored a strong national defense, so shouldn’t that mean paying attention to the Pentagon’s concerns about the destabilizing effects of climate? The Republican umbrella shelters the religious right, the socially conservative and largely rural culture of the American heartland–so exactly how are they supposed to stick up for the needs of farmers and ranchers without doing something about this increasingly extreme weather?

This last is an important point, because it gets to the heart of climate change denial. Barbara Kingsolver has written that the United States does not have a divide between Liberal and Conservative so much as it does a divide between urban and rural people–and that the rural people generally come out the worse for wear in any interaction between the two. Urban-based business interests exploit rural people and their land and give little back, while urban-based media either ignores rural communities or mocks them. In recent years, at least, the Republicans have been somewhat better at advertising themselves to rural voters, which is why many states with large rural populations have gone “red” in recent elections, although the actual distribution of political beliefs on the ground is far more complicated. But the point is that “liberal” and “conservative” are often proxies for “urban” and “rural,” and that when the latter distrust the former, they actually have good reason. When Al Gore, a man thoroughly identified with the liberal, urban elite, made himself the face of climate change he accidentally framed the issue as a liberal cause.

Classic case of ignoring the message because you don’t like the messanger.

The problem is that science has gotten very very complicated and it is not humanly possible for anyone to keep up with all of it. Graduate students forgo sleep in order to read everything ever written on their own very narrow thesis topic, and otherwise everybody depends on other people to summarize and explain new developments to them–which presents the problem of deciding which explainers to trust. And if you don’t have a science background yourself, you basically have to make your decision based on personality, cultural cues, and who the explainer’s friends and allies are. This is how social conservatism became linked to climate denial.

We liberals are used to hearing about “socially conservative” in its negative form–racism, sexism, homophobia, etc. As far as it goes, that isn’t inaccurate (though liberals have their ugly biases, too). What we don’t hear about–or don’t talk about–is that socially conservative American culture also prioritizes loyalty, charity, personal responsibility, and honor.There is a reason why people want to defend this culture. There are also reasons why members of this culture sometimes feel under attack.

Here is Barbara Kingsolver, speaking through a fictional character in her book, Flight Behavior:

I’d say the teams get picked, and then the beliefs get handed around. Team camo, we get the right to bear arms and John Deere and the canning jars and tough love and taking care of our own. The other side wears I don’t know what, something expensive. They get recycling and population control and lattes and as many second chances as anybody wants. Students emailing you to tell you they deserve their A’s.

One of the beliefs she’s talking about being “handed around” is climate change. Somehow, this particular bit of science has gotten firmly associated with “team something expensive,” such that if you want to demonstrate your belief in tough love, community loyalty, and personal liberty, announcing that you don’t believe in global warming is a good way to do it.

The Republican Party does not, of course, actually speak for poor and middle-class farmers any more than the Democrats do. Both parties belong to moneyed interests–with certain exceptions. But those exceptions do exist and the cultural differences between the two parties mean that they support different kinds of exceptions, different versions of trying to do the right things. And we need a variety of approaches to sound environmental policy in order to have a real conversation about how to get out of this mess. And when an individual exception–someone who does stick up for the little guy–does arise, he or she is much more likely to be able to speak to and for rural communities as a Republican.

What might such a Republican look like?

Turns out, we’ve already had such a Republican in the White House–and he did a fantastically good job within the context of his times.

Theodore Roosevelt was not just an outdoorsman; he was an accomplished naturalist. He could just as easily have become a scientist  and once dreamed of doing so.  His environmental record as President is unparalleled:

  • federal protection for almost 230 million acres of land
  • 150 national forests
  • the first 51 federal bird reservations
  • the first 18 national monuments
  • five national parks,
  • the first four national game preserves
  • the appointment of Gifford Pinchot as first Chief of the US Forest Service, another pivotal person in the history of American conservation.

One hundred and seven years ago today, Teddy Roosevelt, speaking at the Conference on the Conservation of Natural Resources, had this to say:

We have become great because of the lavish use of our resources and we have just reason to be proud of our growth. But the time has come to inquire seriously what will happen when our forests are gone, when the coal, the iron, the oil and the gas are exhausted, when the soils have been still further impoverished and washed into the streams, polluting the rivers, denuding the fields, and obstructing navigation. These questions do not relate only to the next century or to the next generation. It is time for us now as a nation to exercise the same reasonable foresight in dealing with our great natural resources that would be shown by any prudent man in conserving and widely using the property which contains the assurance of well-being for himself and his children.

Teddy Roosevelt was a Republican. It would be easy to say that the Republican Party has changed and that the Parties have switched places somehow–the Party of Lincoln and TR becoming the Party of racists and climate-deniers. As always, the truth is more complicated. The truth is that each party has held to a few core principles, with occasional exceptions, consistently, and that almost any issue of the moment can be championed in light of either set of principles. Sometimes one party’s approach eclipses the other for a while on a given issue, which then becomes identified with that party for a while.

Consider the Republican Party Platform of 1908, when Teddy Roosevelt was head of the Party and sitting in the White House. Although some planks do sound a little odd, given where the Party went later in the twentieth Century (the passage and enforcement of the Sherman Antitrust Law, the total denouncement of any and all racial discrimination), it is basically a recognizably modern conservative document in somewhat antiquated language. There is a recurrent focus on the protection and enhancement of private property, the equality of opportunity to succeed (not a social safety net for those who fail), and expansion of American influence abroad. There is a call to more carefully define the powers of Federal courts, which is reminiscent of the modern call for limited government. There are various pot-shots at Democrats. There is a self-congratulatory note about an insurrection in another country having been suppressed and how American involvement would soon prepare the people there to reclaim a measure of home-rule–the country was the Philippines, but the line is eerily familiar given that another Republican President was saying almost exactly the same thing about a different country exactly a hundred years later.

Towards the end, the document describes the two Parties in contrast to each other. One may assume a heavy dose of political spin, of course, but we do get a sense of how the Republicans thought of themselves:

The present tendencies of the two parties are even more marked by inherent differences. The trend of Democracy is toward socialism, while the Republican party stands for a wise and regulated individualism. Socialism would destroy wealth, Republicanism would prevent its abuse. Socialism would give to each an equal right to take; Republicanism would give to each an equal right to earn. Socialism would offer an equality of possession which would soon leave no one anything to possess, Republicanism would give equality of opportunity which would assure to each his share of a constantly increasing sum of possessions. In line with this tendency the Democratic party of to-day believes in Government ownership, while the Republican party believes in Government regulation. Ultimately Democracy would have the nation own the people, while Republicanism would have the people own the nation.

I suspect that this was before “socialism” became a political boogeyman and that the Democrats probably were somewhat socialist at the time. It’s worth noting that the Republican call for government regulation, which looks strange to modern eyes, is here placed in contrast with the specter of even greater government involvement.

The bottom line here is that Teddy Roosevelt was an environmentalist, the best and greatest environmentalist President we’ve ever had. But he was an environmentalist in a particularly Republican way. He wanted to use the Federal government to protect the land from industrialists, yes, but only to free the people to do their individualistic best with those resources. He saw environmental conservation not just in terms of his personal fondness for the outdoors, but as a critically important part of the path to prosperity and fairness. His carefully cultivated wild west persona was, yes, his personal version of macho, but also his version of being a man of the people–he was doing his best to give himself the cultural markers that would make him trustworthy to rural people. Nor was he simply posturing–he championed major irrigation projects, free rural mail service, and improved rural roads.

If TR were alive and politically active today, there is no way he’d be a climate change denier. He’d probably take anyone who was over his knee. But his approach to the issue would be different than what we see from Democrats today–he’d be a progressive, but not a liberal. He might, of course, be a Democrat, for the same reasons his protege, Franklyn Delano Roosevelt, became one–a judgment that the parties had shifted in such a way as to make the left a better home for progressive policy. But I’d like to suggest a different fantasy.

Imagine, for a moment, Teddy Roosevelt as a kind of Bernie Sanders on the right–perhaps an independent or a member of a third party for most of his political career, but shifting to a major party for a final run at the White House. Remember, he still has a second term he could serve. He has strong cultural ties to rural America–he’s the kind of guy you could see yourself having a beer with. He takes economic and social positions that make liberals (including me) twitch, but he goes after moneyed interests and corruption without fear. He’s charismatic and energetic and he cannot be bought. He steps up to the microphone at a press conference to introduce his ambitious new climate change plan.

What does he say?



Author: Caroline Ailanthus

I am a creative science writer. That is, most of my writing is creative rather than technical, but my topic is usually science. I enjoy explaining things and exploring ideas. I have one published novel and another on the way. I have a master's degree in Conservation Biology and I work full-time as a writer.

5 thoughts on “TR, Where Are You Now?

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