Rob Sisson is the president of ConservAmerica, a non-profit dedicated to restoring the Republican Party’s legacy of environmental conservation and educating stakeholders on conservative approaches to today’s climate and energy challenges.
After speaking to Fordham University’s College Republicans, Mr. Sisson sat down with FPR executive editor John Craig and editor-in-chief, Ben St. Clair.
John Craig: What do you see as the most important step the U.S. can take to improve the environment?
I think the U.S. needs to take leadership on reducing greenhouse gas emissions, and the Republican Party is in a sweet spot if candidates will start talking about it. Natural gas in American has been a great success story and the mid-content area; we’ve reduced emissions by 60 percent simply by switching out coal for natural gas. Our greenhouse gas emissions in the United States are back to 1997 levels — the greatest reduction of any developed country in the world. I think not hesitating to take leadership on that issue.
JC: One of the problems with natural gas and fracking is that it’s not an entirely clean source. You’re still producing emissions, especially methane, which is a more harmful greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. How do you reconcile that situation?
Our organization supports all forms of clean and cleaner energy. Ruling out solar and wind energy right now is not going to get us where we need to be with reductions. Natural gas — even with the negative side effects of either drilling for it or burning it — is still about 50 percent cleaner than burning coal. In the Midwest, we have a number of coal plants slated to close, and we have to replace that energy in the next couple years. Really, the only viable source right now is natural gas. In research and development, there have been great strides, and natural gas by any stretch of the imagination isn’t a perfect energy source, but it is so much better than coal that we have to look at it.
JC: Would you consider natural gas a bridge before we develop better solar and wind technology?
Governor Bush, in his energy statement this week, said we have about a 100 year supply of natural gas in the United States. So in the next couple of decades, we can export natural gas to China and India and help them displace their coal plants and burn a cleaner fuel fuel, while we develop more solar, more wind, maybe small-scale nuclear technologies so that every community in America might be someday powered by a small nuclear plant.
JC: Why do you think that liberals have become the voice of environmentalism in the United States. As you mentioned in your talk, there’s a strong history of the GOP being a conservationist voice. How did that voice die out and get taken over by Democrats?
Two different things happened. One is the advent of talk radio and cable news networks and the the echo chambers that were created — not just for the right or left, but everyone could find a place where their own views were echoed. In the ‘80s we had Rush Limbaugh and Fox News pop up, and they adopted one policy or line on these issues. More critically, in the early 2000s when the pollster Frank Luntz advised Republican candidates to doubt climate science. Even him and his focus group back then said that the environment was the area that Republicans were most vulnerable on in running. But that became part of the Republican playbook, and no one has thought to tear that page out and replace it today. That’s one thing [ConservAmerica] is working on.
Ben St. Clair: Why do you think Republicans were vulnerable at the time? Your stance seems to be that Republicans have been departing from their past conservationist stance.
They’re vulnerable because they’re not standing up and protecting the environment. The Democrats have taken it as an issue and are running with it against Republicans. It worked for Republicans. That echo chamber was working and holding a core of base voters together, but now as demographics change and this crop of younger voters is replacing this, Fox News viewers, and Rush Limbaugh listeners, that messaging is not going to work anymore. Some polls I’ve seen suggest that by 2020, if Republicans haven’t returned to their historic legacy on conservation issues, they can no longer be a governing party.
JC: What has allowed many Republicans in Congress, and those running for president, to maintain their denial of climate change? Ben Carson, for instance, is a scientist, and he’s saying there’s no such thing as climate change — or that it’s not anthropogenic in any sense.
I think Dr. Carson’s core constituency are the very conservative evangelical voters. What’s allowed Republicans, both in Congress and candidates running, to avoid the issue or continue to deny the issue of climate change is the fact that the primary system, the fact that primary voters tend to be this very conservative core that has carried the party for the last 20 years. As well as campaign finance. When one person can basically fund a Super PAC to fund your candidacy, you need to reflect the views of that person or you’re not going to get that funding. Demographics and campaign finance are the two reasons they have been able to maintain those positions, but demographics is changing that, and Republican candidates and officeholders are going to have to adjust.
JC: Your website includes many quotes from President Reagan, and as you said today, Republicans seem to always have to evoke his legacy when they speak. But Reagan is famous for removing solar panels from the White House and stopped work to try to prevent acid rain, thinking it was burdensome to industry in general. Can we really look to Reagan as a voice of environmentalism?
Yes, and that’s not true. His administration actually was working on the acid rain “socks and knocks” rules. They didn’t do it in the first term because they thought it might be a political hot potato. Second term, they actually started speaking up, and the clock ran out. To his credit, George H.W. Bush crossed the finish line on that. Reagan was president during that first period in the ‘80s when conservative talk radio and that echo chamber came on, and it became electoral decisions on how to do it, rather than what was good for the environment overall.
[*Editor’s Note: Citing The Role of a Lifetime by Lou Cannon, ontheissues.org writes, “[Reagan’s EPA director] was dismayed by Reagan’s cavalier dismissal of the importance of acid rain, which had destroyed fish and plant life in thousands of American and Canadian lakes and streams. During the 1970s it had become an issue in Canada, which objected to the pollution originating in US smokestacks in the Midwest and deposited in Canadian forests and lakes. Reagan had promised Canadian Prime Minister Trudeau during a 1981 visit that he would honor the [agreement which Trudeau had negotiated with Pres. Carter, which required] vigorous enforcement of anti-pollution standards. After three years of much talk and little action, the EPA wanted Reagan to make a major budget commitment to reducing the causes of acid rain. The EPA’s proposal was assailed as wasteful government spending by Reagan’s OMB and was rejected by Reagan, who questioned the scientific evidence on the causes of acid rain and was reluctant to impose additional restrictions on industry.”]
BS: What about the trend that began in the ‘80s toward government austerity and defunding major regulatory powers like the EPA and even limiting funding for NASA for research and development, while subsidizing the oil and natural gas industries? Is that a legacy that perhaps taints President’s Reagan’s influence?
I think that’s one of the legacies from his administration that continues to today, but again I think we’re going to see that change since libertarians and conservatives today are looking at all subsides and saying, “why are we providing corporate welfare?” Let’s just level the playing field, and I think clean energies will be able to compete more fairly.
BS: But that also involves cutting spending for research and development at NASA, for instance. They want no government subsidies, but they also want no government funding for other agencies like the EPA.
Right. I think we’re seeing that that’s not a Reagan issue. That’s a parliamentary issue for the way Congress is structured right now where one senator can stop anything from going through unless [the rest of the chamber] caves to whatever that senator wants. Again, I think the trending demographics are what’s going to help [the Republican Party] here because [they] have put pressure one whatever party the person’s from to do the right thing for the country and for the future generations.
BS: Do you think the Republican Party is out of touch with those trending demographics?
No. The members I’ve talked to in Washington — they see them, and they’re worried about them. I think that’s an undercurrent of the issue going on right now with the leadership change [in the House of Representatives].
JC: Part of the problem that I’ve seen Republicans run into is that they’re very much the party that stands for the economy and for industry. Part of the issue with environmentalism is that it is seen as the enemy of the economy and of industry. Do you think that’s an accurate perception of environmental protection, or can industry and environmentalists work together?
We always talk about how being pro-environment and pro-economy are not mutually exclusive. That goes back to that Frank Luntz playbook [that said] we have to tell people that the science is flawed and even if we did something, it would cost jobs and crash our economy. No, that’s not true at all. In my state of Michigan, wind energy is the cheapest energy being produced. Four years ago, you could barely find a Republican supporting it. Now, most Republicans support wind energy in Michigan because we’re more competitive now. We can make things cheaper because our energy is cheaper. Not only that, but the process of building these wind turbines and staffing them is creating jobs and a whole new economy. There are more jobs in solar in the United States now than there are in coal industry. The argument that doing the right thing for the environment is bad for the economy is just not true. It goes back to that “how do we use the environment against Democrats?” One way is that doing anything for the environment is going to kill jobs, and that’s just not true.
JC: Which of the Republican presidential candidates presents the best plan for preservation and environmentalism, in your opinion?
None of the candidates have yet put out a detailed environmental protection plan or conservation ideas. I’ll give you three or four that I think are pretty good. I think Jeb Bush is really good. His energy policy, I think, actually helps reduce greenhouse gas emissions while growing jobs, and his crowning jewel of environmental protection is the job he did with the everglades. He brought the everglades back from drying up and just being developed. I think John Kasich is in a good moral place — he would be a good leader. I think Rand Paul has some good libertarian viewpoints on conservation and environmental protection. We’ll see. There’s a debate next week with some of them — hopefully that will spur some conversation across all the candidates. And in the coming debate we’ll see some of those questions flushed out I hope.
BS: What types of policy would you like to see them support?
Setting climate change aside because that takes all the air out of the room, yesterday the Land and Water Conservation Fund expired. The Land and Water Conservation Fund started 50 years ago. It was originally intended to be funded with $900 million a year of offshore oil and gas lease money— not taxes — and the purpose was to buy public lands and help develop public recreation structure. In the last 30 years, Congress has never fully funded it. In fact, they’ve really short-changed it — maybe $200 million or less per year. Most of that money has gone to cities and towns to build playgrounds, build ballfields, tennis courts, things like that. Some has gone to buy inholdings in national parks and national forests and help lower the expenses of management. Right now, we have about a $14 billion backlog of maintenance in our national parks and national forests. I would like to see the Land and Water Conservation Fund permanently renewed and permanently funded at its full level with about half that money being used on maintenance and infrastructure on existing public property. The other half divided up between improving access to public lands and helping local government build parks and recreation complexes. That’s a big one. That is huge. That is the most successful public lands act we’ve had. And I would like to see Congress do more to level the playing field for all energy sources in terms of subsidies.
BS: Does a carbon tax fit into your ideal policies?
It could. It could be one competent of policy. The amount of subsidies that are given to oil and coal right now dwarf the subsidies that are given to solar and wind. It would be interesting to see a phased in proposal where they reduce all the subsidies over a five year period so they’re down and gone to see how they each compete. The cost of solar has just plummeted because of some of the subsides they’ve had. I think that will continue — and with wind. I think we’re really on the verge of a great new century for America because of innovation, particularly in the clean energy.