To say that the election of Donald Trump has been bad for the environment is the greatest of understatements. Though many conservatives conveniently ignore it, he has also been bad for principles of conservatism. He has rejected what were once core principles of conservatism by interfering with free market forces and trying to use government intervention to prop up dying (and polluting) industries like coal (not to mention hampering free trade). He has appointed a former coal lobbyist to head the agency whose job is to protect the American people from environmental harms. That person has started the process of rolling back mercury emission regulations, which is decidedly anti-pro-life considering the number of children and adults who die premature deaths every year from such emissions. He has initiated rolling back protections for wetlands and endangered species, which harms future generations by exacerbating resource scarcity and increasing economic losses. Perhaps most damaging is his active undermining of climate change science and policy, emboldening those who reject truth and fact and leaving a vacuum on the world stage that threatens to harm our children and grandchildren in the shockingly near future (not to mention the harms already occurring).
Notwithstanding the fact that environmental protection should not be a partisan issue, the Democratic party takeover of the House of Representatives has been viewed as an opportunity to not only act as a check on the many strains of corruption apparent within the current administration, but also a check against the environmental damage already done and in process. But Democratic party tone deafness is partly why Trump was elected in the first instance. And they are poised to repeat those mistakes in the midst of their new governance opportunity, with stark implications for the environment.
There are two recent examples that together demonstrate the risks of this tone deafness: the rolling out of the Green New Deal and the celebratory tenor surrounding recently enacted state abortion laws. I had been pondering these exact issues and the implications they have for 2020 even before I read his article, but CNN’s Chris Cillizza beat me to the punch in his February 12, 2019 commentary “How Democrats are handing Donald Trump a viable path to a second term.” Cillizza argues that on the issues of the Green New Deal and abortion, Democrats are “unwittingly aiding and abetting” Trump’s most “plausible path to a second term.” The gist of the article is that by making such a show over expansion of late term abortion access (only 13% of citizens said they supported access to a third trimester abortion in 2018) and rolling out a potentially unrealistic re-imagining of environmental and economic policy at this particular time threatens to alienate moderate swing voters needed to change executive branch leadership in 2020 (note: this post is not about what that change would look like, whether via Democratic or Republican challengers, for example). In particular, Cillizza focuses on how the right wing will latch on to these two issues to present simplified one-liners that can sway voters on the campaign trail. Indeed, Trump and supporters have already spun the Green New Deal as the Democrats coming to take away our cars. I spoke to three different friends in the last week who said “they’re going to take away our planes! They’re saying we can’t own cows!” No, that is not what the text of the resolution actually says (though it makes convenient right-wing false propaganda). Even so, Democratic leadership (Nancy Pelosi) has been less than impressed with the rollout and criticisms have been launched across the political spectrum.
Regardless of the veracity of Cillizza’s opinions, I have my own concerns on the relationship between these two issues. There is little doubt that drastic action is needed to forestall the worst effects of climate change. Scientists have been saying it for years (with increased urgency of late) and Americans are starting to better understand that climate impacts are already upon us. But even environmental scholars who understand what is needed argue that “the most enthusiastic proponents of ambitious climate policy don’t believe the [Green New Deal’s] goals are achievable, technologically let alone politically.”
My issue is not with the substance of the Green New Deal, however, though I share similar concerns. Scholars are correct to point out that a far less partisan Congress in the 1970’s articulated remarkably ambitious, unrealistic, and costly aspirational goals before the passage of current major federal environmental laws (the Clean Water Act, Clean Air Act, Endangered Species Act, among others)—laws which have been largely effective at remedying the targeted environmental ills. Technology caught up, costs went down, and unrealistic goals were largely achieved. But my concern has not so much to do with the environmental message as with the messenger. Rallying cries from politicians like Ocasio-Cortez can do more damage than good because she represents an extreme wing of the party. Even if half the Democratic party supports her political worldview, then a large majority of the remainder of US citizens (from the rest of the Democratic party to the other end of the spectrum) hold a different worldview. Yet all of those citizens need the protections of sound environmental policy. Our nation’s move away from moderates advocating for needed policies and toward the extremes of both parties receiving an outsized say in party platform trajectories is harming our environment.
What our nation needs is for moderates, on both sides of the aisle, to present workable (even if “drastic”) solutions to these issues, and for the media to highlight and applaud those efforts. I know so many otherwise reasonable people (and who are not Trump supporters) who hear some of Ocasio-Perez’s far left-leaning rhetoric (some of it unfairly spun by right-wing media, other of it fairly understood as central to a leftist worldview antithetical to their own) and immediately dismiss the environmental agenda because of its association with her.
The message is further compromised when the party puts on a show of people smiling, laughing, and applauding while legalizing abortion in the third trimester (see image, below).
Whether or not the law is aimed at protecting the health of the mother, or one’s position on abortion under those circumstances, is the occasion one that should be celebrated as if it were the enactment of a policy providing education for underprivileged youth or some other noble cause? Even if one feels the policy is a victory for mothers who might otherwise die or be harmed during childbirth, does applause, smiling, and laughing demonstrate an appropriate sensitivity to the mothers faced with such horrible choices? At the very least, shouldn’t the policy’s enactment garner a tenor equal to the gravity of the horrible circumstances under which one avails themselves of the law? Even for those who might agree with the policy, this move should be the poster child of tone deafness. In fact, the whole charade appeared to be mere political posturing aimed at “sticking it” to the President. This is not the issue nor the occasion to make such a political statement.
Perhaps it is no surprise that when New York state also recently announced ambitious goals to crack down on greenhouse gas emissions, the move was met with skepticism by many I know and respect and who are not avid Trump supporters. The timing of the announcement with the abortion law celebration made an association that is difficult for people to escape: “how can someone care about future generations when it comes to climate, but not future lives aborted? How can I support this type of progressivism across the board if this is the logic of the worldview?” Of course people should use a scalpel and not a machete when parsing policy positions of parties. But the reality is that most Americans—including swing voters needed to tip the scales toward climate action—have very little time to get into the weeds of policy distinctions. Association therefore becomes a convenient mechanism for defaulting to tribalism. And most people who found the abortion law celebration appalling will stick with the camp that prioritizes the lives of unborn children already gestating in a mother’s womb over the camp that prioritizes the lives of the speculative unborn potentially harmed by climate change 150 years from now.
I have written before about how the abortion debate presents a dilemma for arguments that we need to protect future generations through environmental protection policies. “How is a clump of dusky gopher frog cells gestating in a pond in Louisiana ‘life’ worth saving through policy, but a ‘clump of cells’ in a mother’s womb is not?” the thinking goes. Granted, the New York Law has been misrepresented by both sides to a degree. The legal rights established in the bill are not explicitly meant to be carte blanche, but rather only utilized in circumstances where “the patient is within twenty-four weeks from the commencement of pregnancy, or there is an absence of fetal viability, or the abortion is necessary to protect the patient’s life or health.” But, as defined in Doe v. Bolton (a Roe v. Wade companion case), “life or health” includes “all factors—physical, emotional, psychological, familial, and the woman’s age—relevant to the well-being of the patient.” As one of my friends said: “In other words, for any reason.”
I have many friends who are Democratic party supporters and who consider themselves on the “right side of history” on virtually everything. But as Andrew Sullivan notes:
…to believe with absolute certainty that you are on “the right side of history,” or on the right side of a battle between “good and evil,” is a dangerous and seductive form of idolatry. It flatters yourself. And it will lead you inevitably to lose your moral bearings because soon, you will find yourself doing and justifying things that are evil solely because they advance the cause of the “good.”
That sentiment applies equally to the evangelical right’s support of Trump and the left’s virtually unconditional support of abortion (support that has effectively squeezed out of the party any members with pro-life worldviews. See here, here, and here). And both modern science and shifts in societal perspectives (not to mention ethics and morality) indicate that the Democratic party’s unconditional support of abortion will prove to be the wrong side of history. Particularly when true choice is not at issue (such as in cases of life-threatening emergency or rape).
Notwithstanding views on abortion, the debate is moot in a world destroyed by climate change. If the Democratic party really wants to reach swing voters to establish a new administration and/or pass important environmental policies—the ones on the margin who could tip society from no climate-action to action—then it will need to be less tone deaf and more utilitarian in its political battles. At the very least it should not celebrate with glee horrible choices women feel they must make between their health and the lives of unborn children. Until the left, and the Democratic Party, understands what Jonathan Haidt describes in “The Righteous Mind,” they will have a messaging problem that will continue to harm efforts to protect the environment. The Republican Party bears much blame for distorting the reality of environmental harms occurring now and in the future and the need to prevent them. But on the left, messengers on environmental policy need to be someone other than the most extreme in the Democratic party, and the message should not be at cross-purposes with other policy positions taken by the party. Otherwise, the party is slowing down a desperately needed environmental transition at the very moment that we are running out of time.
– Blake Hudson