The Democrats didn't throw environmentalists many bones at their convention this week -- at least not any with much meat on them. Yet it was striking how even bland, unspecific statements about the environment drew stark contrasts between the parties. Take a few lines from Rhode Island Gov. Lincoln Chafee's speech, who is not a Democrat but an ex-Republican turned Independent. Speaking for those in the political middle -- "traditional conservatives," as he called them -- who support President Obama's re-election, Chafee said: "We love this land -- literally. We believe in environmental stewardship -- protecting our air and our water."
I know what you're thinking: BORing! Taken at face value, Chafee's words would seem to rank among the least important political proclamations on the environment of all time. Yet at last week's Republican National Convention, perhaps the most telling lines about the GOP's environmental philosophy came from Mitt Romney, who said mockingly, "President Obama promised to begin to slow the rise of the oceans and heal the planet. My promise is to help you and your family." In Romney's wake, Lincoln "stuck in the '70s" Chafee's declaration that Obama's tribe believes in environmental stewardship seemed suddenly significant. It became a defiant, "we hold these truths to be self-evident" sort of statement.
Of course, it's not news that this GOP, in its current incarnation, is a pretty anti-environmental beast. Still, I find myself continually surprised by how radically the party has shifted its view in recent years.
Let's take a trip down memory lane: Brad Plumer wrote a great post for Wonkblog recently contrasting the GOP's official platforms in 2008 and 2012 that illuminated this transformation. Plumer points first to a section on climate change in the 2008 platform, which asserted: "The same human economic activity that has brought freedom and opportunity to billions has also increased the amount of carbon in the atmosphere. While the scope and longterm consequences of this are the subject of ongoing scientific research, common sense dictates that the United States should take measured and reasonable steps today to reduce any impact on the environment. Those steps, if consistent with our global competitiveness will also be good for our national security, our energy independence, and our economy."
This year, Mitt Romney's only nod to the environment created a baffling false dichotomy between what's good for planet and what's good for people. (Though in less visible quarters, Romney has at least struck a more nuanced tone.) The section on climate change has disappeared from the platform. It now advocates taking "quick action to prohibit the EPA from moving forward with new greenhouse gas regulations," and restoring scientific integrity to public research institutions, something it claims "is especially important when the causes and long-range effect of a phenomenon are uncertain." Nevermind that among the vast majority of the world's scientists, such fundamental uncertainties about climate change don't exist.
Plumer compared and contrasted the Democrats' platforms as well, and they too have changed their ways, taking more of a shine to domestic fossil fuel production after pledging to end "the tyranny of oil" in 2008, and adopting what Plumer calls "a less apocalyptic take on climate change." The total package, as Plumer puts it, "tries awkwardly to juggle these competing concerns," embracing oil and gas drilling while acknowledging climate change as "one of the biggest threats of this generation."
Answering Romney's climate jab in Charlotte last night, Obama said: "My plan will continue to reduce the carbon pollution that is heating our planet. Because climate change is not a hoax. More drought and floods and wildfire are not a joke. They're a threat to our children's future. And in this election, you can do something about it."
Environmentalists, who have been disappointed by Obama's lack of bold action on our climate conundrum, may be justifiably skeptical. His speech last night likely frustrated more than satisfied them: the president briefly cheered clean coal, and touted his support for an ongoing expansion of domestic oil and gas drilling, while promising to "not let oil companies write this country's energy plan or endanger our coastlines or collect another $4 billion in corporate welfare from our taxpayers." Awkward as this balance may be, at least somebody is still trying to strike it -- something the GOP seems increasingly disinterested in.
Obama also told the crowd of party faithful last night that, "When you pick up that ballot to vote, you will face the clearest choice of any time in a generation." On the environment, at least, that appears to be true.
Cally Carswell is HCN's assistant editor.