Conservatives for Conservation

Conservatives for Conservation

The name is no longer Republicans for Environmental Protection, but the greenest group on the right side of the U.S. political spectrum is continuing its efforts to ensure that the term is not an oxymoron. ConservAmerica wants to make protecting the environment a non-partisan issue, and hopes that the name change will open new doors for the group, according to communications director Jim DiPeso.

The word “environment” has become an increasingly loaded term among conservatives, and the new name is an attempt to dispel the notion—promoted, DiPeso says, on the political right and left—that conservatives don’t care about ecological issues.

“We wanted to send a very clear message that this issue is important to Republicans and that Republicans ought to be leaders on this issue and not just cede this field to Democrats; this is inconsistent with traditional conservatism. And it keeps the issue in a partisan box which means that steady progress on improving our stewardship of natural resources will not happen,” DiPeso says.

Founded in 1995, the group heralds back to the days when Republican leaders, from Teddy Roosevelt to Richard Nixon, took significant steps to protect the environment. DiPeso, who has been with the organization for more than a decade, bemoans how the “really hard-core libertarian idea” that environmental protection should only be done voluntarily or privately has come to define his party’s stance on the environment. For this, he blames “inflammatory” conservative talk radio hosts, promulgation by liberals that conservatives care more about money than nature, and the overall political polarization.

The climate change debate is particularly frustrating to DiPeso, also a Climate Access member. ConservAmerica, which considers climate change to be an important national issue with national economic and security implications, is clearly an outlier in the Republican Party.

“Climate change has become a symbol of a lot of things Republicans don’t like. It is seen as a vehicle for really tightening regulation of the economy, expanding government, constraining the sphere of private activities, constricting freedoms….Climate has become, like environment, a loaded term,” explains DiPeso. He says that it’s easy to attack climate science because the issue is so abstract and complicated, noting that there is “mendacious doubt” with industries, most notably coal, feeling threatened along with legitimate doubts from people who are simply perplexed by the issue.

As a result, although behavior change is “certainly part of the answer” on climate, DiPeso cautions about pushing it in ways that come across as telling people what to do, dictating their work and consumer choices. He suggests a different approach:

“What can work is behavior change approached in a collaborative educational partnership way,” he says. “Talk to people about things that are important to them, how we all want clean air, clean water, a nice community to raise our kids in; so let’s think about some different ways of living our lives and making purchases. Come at it in a way that you’re asking people for help not ‘I know what’s best for you and that’s just the way it has to be.’”

He points to energy efficiency as an area that holds some promise for climate conversations, because it relates to some of the issues that conservatives care about, such as building up the economy, energy security and developing new technologies. The challenge, he says, is to find ways of “talking about climate in a way that doesn’t elicit the reaction of ‘here we go again, more government, more control of the economy, more regulation.’ That’s going to take some time. We need to talk about this issue in ways that resonate with other values… that don’t cause barriers to immediately go up.”

DiPeso says that the group’s members remain committed to the Republican Party despite the Party’s recent record on the environment and the rise of the Tea Party. (He says that it doesn’t matter to the group which issues—taxes, firearms, abortion, etc—drive members’ political affiliation.) He explains that because a lot of environmental groups are perceived as promoting the interests of the Democratic Party, affiliating with other environmental groups wouldn’t fix the problem of partisanship with the environmental debate.

He said says that while changing the perception of the environment among political conservatives is tricky, especially given how both main U.S. political parties are becoming more ideologically uniform, ConservAmerica remains committed to the task of showing that there is more than one way to approach environmental issues and more than one set of ideas.

“It’s important that conservatives be leaders on the environment…to take care of the resources that they care about. You take good care of the land and it will take good care of us and conservatives need to put their own ideas on the table so that we can accomplish that.”