Climate Corner: Climate Change Is a GOP Issue, Too

by Tia Nelson

It’s striking to see how much the Republican Party has changed its tune on the environment. Both Richard Nixon and George H.W. Bush showed leadership on the issue as presidents, and more recently, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) called on the nation to address climate change.

Today, conservatives have largely abandoned environmental causes in a fog of climate-change denial set in motion long ago by the fossil-fuel industry. But we’re beginning to see some cracks, even from that very industry itself.

Recently, a group of CEOs from high-profile corporations  –  including some oil companies  –  joined forces with environmental groups to form the CEO Climate Dialogue, which called for U.S. policy that would put the nation on a path to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions by 80 percent or more by 2050. They know climate change is real, driven by burning fossil fuels, and that the public is demanding cleaner energy.

Those of us who care about the environment need to try to build on this effort – as well as similar ones by other corporations and conservative leaders such as James Baker and George Shultz – to generate support among Republicans. For decades, global warming was a bipartisan issue, and there’s no reason it can’t be again. I consider myself a conservationist, and when I speak to my conservative friends, I remind them that there’s a reason why “conservationist” has “conservative” as its root : Conserving our natural resources is, in fact, a conservative value.

Importantly, according to the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication, young Republicans support climate action at nearly the same level as Democrats, and they are increasingly organizing and speaking up. 

Hard as it is to picture now, the GOP once had leaders with progressive views on the environment.

In 1970, Nixon devoted several minutes to the issue in his first State of the Union address, rightly casting the issue as one that transcends politics: “Restoring nature to its natural state is a cause beyond party, and beyond factions. It has become a common cause of all the people of this country. It is a cause of particular concern to young Americans, because they, more than we, will reap the grim consequences of our failure to act on programs which are needed now, if we are to prevent disaster.”

Later that year, Nixon created the Environmental Protection Agency, one of his many seminal environmental accomplishments.

Two titans of the party who died during the past year – George Bush Sr. and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) – also demonstrated leadership on this issue.

In 1988, Bush campaigned as the “environmental president.” Once in office, he signed the Global Change Research Act of 1990, the law that forced the Trump administration last November to release the National Climate Assessment, which warned of the dire impacts of climate change to our economy and environment. He also signed a new Clean Air Act that same year, which is credited with eliminating acid rain. And during his time as president, Bush’s son, George W. Bush, called for action to address global warming.

Two decades later, McCain made climate change an important part of his unsuccessful Republican presidential campaign.

There used to be pro-environment Republican governors, too. My friend Tommy Thompson had an impressive record in conserving lands during his four terms as governor of Wisconsin. He often kids me that he did more in this area than my dad  –  the late Wisconsin Sen. and Gov. Gaylord Nelson, who founded Earth Day  –  when he was governor. (Of course, Tommy served a lot longer.)

Tommy remains very proud of this accomplishment, recently touting, “We purchased and saved more lands than any administration ever under my administration.” And on Earth Day, he teamed up with former Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.) to urge a return to bipartisanship on the environment.

There are other GOP allies out there, such as South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, who has long advocated for a carbon tax; and Utah Sen. Mitt Romney, the 2012 GOP presidential nominee.

Recently, three Republican leaders on the House Energy and Commerce Committee  – Reps. Greg Walden of Oregon, Fred Upton of Michigan and John Shimkus of Illinois  – wrote an op-ed declaring, “Climate change is real.” They urged policies to encourage innovation and renewable-energy development, among other ideas.

Whether you support free-market solutions or the Green New Deal, the important thing is that citizens and elected officials engage in discussion about how we can make swift progress toward a prosperous future of clean energy and a strong economy.

Some Republicans are publicly challenging President Trump’s hostility toward climate-change solutions. At last December’s United Nations climate conference in Poland, former California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger stressed that the U.S. was still in the Paris climate agreement, despite Trump’s decision to leave the accord.

There’s no doubt, pro-environment Republicans who are willing to speak out have become an endangered species. But as the Nixon-era Endangered Species Act has demonstrated, there’s always hope for recovery.

This article was originally published on The Hill on May 24, 2019. Minor edits were made for this republication. Tia Nelson, managing director for climate at the Outrider Foundation, is the former director of the Global Climate Change Initiative at The Nature Conservancy and former executive secretary to the Wisconsin Board of Commissioners of Public Lands. Follow her on Twitter @tialeenelson.


Join a fundraising hike at Toft Point and a picnic with Charlotte Lukes and Nick Anderson on Tuesday, Aug. 27. The cost is $50; reservations are required. To learn more or sign up, contact Nicole at 715.330.4660 or [email protected].

“Educating Girls and Reducing Food Waste: Two Powerful Weapons in the Fight against Global Warming”

During this Sept. 16, 7 pm, program of the Climate Change Coalition of Door County at the Kress Pavilion in Egg Harbor, the organization will offer video presentations featuring Katharine Wilkinson and a discussion facilitated by Roy Thilly.