Green Politics for Left and Right

On May 12, John McCain, the Republican candidate for US president, gave a major policy speech on Global Warming at the Portland, Oregon training center of Vestas Wind Corporation. In his speech he pointed out the obvious (if inconvenient) truth that "the facts of global warming demand our urgent attention."

McCain acknowledged evidence of "reduced snow pack, with earlier runoffs... sustained drought in the Southwest, and across the world average temperatures that seem to reach new records every few years." McCain took the politically bold step of accepting that we will have to adapt to some extent to "reduced water supplies, more forest fires than in previous decades, changes in crop production, more heat waves afflicting our cities and a greater intensity in storms."

In order to prevent further damage, McCain argued for "a system that sets clear limits on all greenhouse gases, while also allowing the sale of rights to excess emissions."

I think any cap and trade system ought to be evaluated closely, looking at questions of where permits will come from an how permits will be exchanged. But the most important question about a cap and trade system is how high is the cap -- how much emissions are permitted? McCain proposes that "by the year 2012, we will seek a return to 2005 levels of emission, by 2020, a return to 1990 levels, and so on until we have achieved at least a reduction of sixty percent below 1990 levels by the year 2050." (McCain Campaign)

As far as empty campaign promises go, this one's not bad. The United States has at last, twenty years after Dr. James Hansen's famous Senate testimony, presidential candidates who take global warming seriously. McCain's promised reduction falls short, 60% to 80% by 2050, against his Democratic opponents, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. (For a more thorough analysis of the candidates green policies, click here.)

The green blogosphere has analyzed the speech thoroughly, with Gristmill's David Roberts criticizing McCain's position on offsets and giving away permits. Sierra Club joins in to emphasize the importance of an 80% cut, and of auctioning pollution permits to produce to an equitable transition for workers. Most interestingly, perhaps, is's listing of McCain's hypocritical votes (or non-votes) on alternative energy.

McCain has voted repeatedly against renewable energy standards that would mandate 10 or 20% of energy purchased be produced from renewable sources. He voted to cut funding for Rural Renewable Energy by $60 million, and he's skipped votes extending tax credits to wind developers.

McCain's global warming rhetoric, so different from his global warming action, seems to suggest that he's trying to appeal to a new group of American voters -- Republicans and right leaning independents who care about the environment (at least in principle). Who are these voters?

I remember these people from my days doing grassroots canvassing door to door for the Sierra Club, and Environment Maine. I raised support for protecting national parks, and for increasing regulations on mercury pollution. When I met supporters, I could categorize them into what I like to call 'left greens' and 'right greens'.

Left greens are people who believe the government ought to provide social services like health-care, daycare, and environmental protection.

Right greens are people who believe the government ought to preserve traditional rights like gun ownership, private property, and use of public spaces.

These two philosophies intersect at the point where people want to enjoy nature, and expect the government to protect nature for their use. Right greens, often hunters and fishers, wanted to eat fish that did not have mercury in it, and hike in the same national parks as their grandparents. On a theoretical level, the existence of Left and Right greens supports Andrew Dobson's argument in his book 'Green Political Thought' that 'Ecologism' is a distinct political ideology, separate from Liberalism, Conservatism, Socialism, etc. On a practical level, Ecologism's appeal across traditional American divides explains why the environment has become a necessary part of any national American politician's talking points.

A specific instance of green politics in action, is the growth of a green political base in the American West, as documented in a recent article in the New York Times by David Sirota. In the last two decades in the American West, Republicans have preserved electoral majorities by pandering to logging and mining interests, while painting Democrats as environmentalists unconcerned with people's jobs. Sirota points out that the West has become dominated recently by what I call Right greens: retirees, eco-tourists, and professionals who enjoy hunting and fishing, all of whom have an interest in protecting the environment. Because only 1.3 percent of the region's workforce works in the energy industry (and stands to benefit from expansion of oil and natural gas drilling) Western Republicans have important electoral reasons to adopt green politics. Sirota cites Jeb Steward, a Republican state representative, who helped oppose the 2007 sale of oil and gas parcels to oil companies, keeping the land public and safe. Steward says "We have customs and cultures that have developed over a hundred years based on the utilization of multiple renewable resources — agriculture, tourism, wildlife, fisheries. When B.L.M. proposed issuing the leases, residents were asking, 'What does this mean to the lifestyles that we've all grown accustomed to?' "

The people I canvassed about mercury pollution asked me the same question: 'What does this mean for my way of life?'

It means protecting our environment protects ourselves.

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  • Posted on May 28, 2008. Listed in:

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