What would the nation’s environmental policies look like if voters decided who ran our environmental agencies? Here’s why I ask that question — and a possible solution.
For years opinion polls have consistently shown the overwhelming majority of Americans want stronger environmental protections – even if it might cost them more money or “even at the risk of curbing economic growth.”
And a Gallup polls this year showed that opinion remains strong. Among its findings:
— 62 percent say government is doing too little on the environment, the highest since 2006;
— A majority prioritize the environment even if it limits economic growth;
— Americans show strong support for curbing emissions and alternative energy.
Of course, there is a strong partisan divide on this issue, as Gallup notes:
“Eighty-five percent of Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents say the government is doing too little, compared with 31% of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents. By contrast, just over two-thirds of Republicans say actions of the government on the environment are about right or say it is doing too much. These partisan differences have been generally consistent over time.”
That consistent difference has repeatedly prompted me to ask my conservative friends this question: Show me why it’s inconsistent to be pro-life, pro-gun, pro-small government – and pro-environment?
Grimacing, they typically have answered this way: “I’m against my party’s environmental policies, but I never get a chance to vote for pro-environment conservatives – and I just can’t vote for a Democrat for all the other reasons. I really never get the choice.”
They’re right. And that’s because of the money that now controls our politics, especially on the GOP side. Thanks to Supreme Court rulings that have unleashed an uncontrolled flood of money into elections, deep-pocketed polluting and anti-regulatory lobbies largely decide not only who wins GOP congressional elections, but also who gets to run – and who stays in office.
If a GOP congressman suddenly decides to choose protecting the health of constituents over the desires of those polluting donors, he is quickly “primaried.” That means the big money is put behind a challenger in the party primary along with a wave of negative, mudslinging adds paid for by the polluters and their supporters
Bob Inglis knows all about that. A rock-hard conservative congressman from South Carolina, he made the mistake of not only reading the science on climate change, but also accepting the need for action to prevent its impacts from harming his state. The next year he was out of a job.
Yet new research indicates that GOP voters’ opposition to stronger regulations on climate change would change pretty quickly if the party leadership decided to change. Interviews with voters showed they believed in the science their GOP pols often discredit, and they would stand behind climate regs – including a carbon tax – if their elected officials proposed it. (By the way, the study showed that most partisanship on both sides is based on the same rule: I’m against/for whatever my party leaders support/oppose — regardless of what I truly believe.)
Of course, GOP politicians all know what happened to Bob Inglis. They only way they will admit the truth on climate and other environmental issues is if the big money behind them allows it.
So how do we get out of this trap?
Reform of campaign spending would help. But that isn’t likely to happen until there is a dramatic shift on the Supreme Court – or a constitutional amendment dealing with political speech.
Which brings me to this suggestion: Have the secretaries of the EPA and the Interior Department elected by national referendum, rather than appointed by a president.
Can you imagine how many votes Scott Pruitt would have gotten by campaigning on adding more mercury to your children’s air, a touch more lead to their diets and lower gas mileage for your cars? How about pumping more carbon into the air from failing coal mines? Or slicing the size of national monuments, selling national parks or chopping down trees to prevent forest fires?
These cabinet-level positions were created by Congress, so Congress can change how they are filled.
It would finally make the environment an issue at the polls by giving Americans a vote on how clean they want their air, land and water – and what kind of planet they want to leave their children.
Bob Marshall, former Outdoors editor for The Times-Picayune and former environmental reporter for The Lens, writes a regular column. He can be reached at [email protected]
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