Let’s Put Conservation Back Into Conservative

Stopping pollution is something that everyone should embrace, says Rob Sisson, President of Republicans for Environmental Protection

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Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney speaks during a campaign rally on Jan. 18 in Spartanburg, S.C.

Rob Sisson, President of Republicans for Environmental Protection, has been reading up on the Mormon church’s position on climate change. “It is very evident that Romney’s is a faith that promotes science,” he says, “though I’m not finding much on global warming. Still, Romney crunches data. His business background is based on being analytical. And when you look at the data on climate, you can’t deny it. Global warming is happening.”

This might be what we call proceeding on good faith, but Sisson would be the first to tell you he is “an eternal optimist.” I’ve called him to get my bearings straight, and what he has to say is encouraging. Sisson is a Republican leader who is alarmed by the incontrovertible mountain of data about our warming planet — and the attendant dangers — and he is determined to get global warming back into his party’s conversation. “We emphasize conservative logic and reasoning for environmental protection.” But he admits that the road ahead is rough. The political stratosphere has been filled with its own brand of noxious gases.

“Look, there is no question that a strong economy is the key to tackling environmental issues,” he says. “We won’t get anything done on global warming without tying it to jobs.”  I note that Republicans have done a terrific job of linking EPA regulations to the phrase “job-killing”— while the Democrats lack the discipline (or vision) to say “job-creating” every time they utter the word regulations. “Both sides, Democrats and Republicans, are doing a terrible job of explaining to people that pollution regulations do not harm the economy. Pollution control creates jobs.”

Sisson is alarmed by the extreme polarization of his party; he pins it to the power of talk radio rhetoric, which contaminates people’s thinking with falsehoods. He points out that cap and trade was a free market, right-wing idea, but by the time the talk radio folks were done with it, it sounded like a socialist position. “Look, I have plenty of tea party friends who tell me global warming is a hoax. A couple of them are in the insurance business. So I showed them reports about how major insurance leaders are factoring climate change into the way they do business. ‘Oh’, they said, ‘then it must be true.’ But this is hand-to-hand combat. We need to get our message across in a bigger way.”

“When I give speeches, I like to ask ‘Who’s pro-life here?’” Sisson continues. “In Southwest Michigan, everyone raises his hand. So I say, ‘Good. I was afraid there wouldn’t be any environmentalists here.’ And of course, when I talk to Democratic audiences, I flip it: who’s an environmentalist? I’m glad you are pro-life. Because that’s what is at stake here. Life.”

(MORE: Browning: Why Doesn’t Pro-Life Rick Santorum Support Clean Air?)

Now, he says, politics have become so polarized it is difficult to reach across the divide. Even on the jobs front, you cannot talk about “green” jobs. But, says Sisson, efficiency is something everyone can embrace. Efficiency drives down costs, and goes straight to the bottom line. Sisson worked in the commerical banking industry for 20 years, and then served as mayor of his town, Sturgis, MI. He lowered taxes, privatized some city services, and was the CEO of the municipal power company. And in 2008, the Michigan League of Conservation Voters named him “Michigan Environmental Leader of the Year.” That accolade isn’t going to enough Republican politicians these days.

“People can’t understand the federal budget; it is too large,” he says. “But city and state budgets are clear. So when you introduce savings, or spend on regulations, everyone can do the math.” He instituted a program to collect rainwater, for instance, and saved the town considerable sums on capitol and maintenance costs. Perhaps the local level is a more effective place for people to see the connection between a healthy environment and a vibrant economy. But Sisson notes that large environmental reform cannot be accomplished without the federal government. Around the great lakes, for instance, aging sewage treatment facilities are an enormous problem, with spillovers regularly contaminating the water during the increasingly rugged storms that are a result of global warming. “Our shores touch 20% of the world’s fresh water,” Sisson says. “But we cannot afford to clean up that water without federal help.”

Sisson is the first to note that working with federal regulatory agencies can be very frustrating. The bureaucracies are simply so enormous, and fulfillment so entangling that commerce can grind to a halt; this naturally alienates any business leader. “Government agencies need a new mindset. The EPA shouldn’t just be a cop, policing enforcement. It should go in with an intention to help businesses achieve compliance. Our Republican position is that the government needs to take more of a ‘customer service’ position. Now that would be a radical change.”

Sisson is seeing new energy in membership to his organization from an unlikely front. One is among campus Republican groups, particularly from places like Florida, New Hampshire, Massachusetts and Michigan, where campus Republican organizations are active and strong. A younger generation of Republicans understands that global warming is a problem of profound significance.

Sisson himself is a Republican of the sort that used to dominate the party — and is now being forced into a silent majority. He talks about how conservation is a profound part of the conservative ethos, which has a distinguished tradition of stewardship going back to the founding of the Republican party. “I can’t tell you how many calls I get from people telling me, ‘The party’s left me. I’m an independent now.’” These outcries are reason for hope. But Sisson’s organization is about to change its name: These days, “environmental” is a word that turns Republicans away — and “Republicans” is turning away moderate Republicans and Independents. Republicans for Environmental Protection will become ConservAmerica. That has its own poetry, but surely the Republican Party can see a way to be proud to put conservation back into its conservatism.