A new American President took office this weekend, and political passions are running high. President Trump’s bold call in his inaugural address for a “new vision” to put “America first” was answered by unprecedented public demonstrations in Washington and cities around the world.
But when one steps back from the heightened passions of the moment, it’s uncertain what exactly will happen next with federal policy on the environment. We are in uncharted terrain.
President Trump’s team has not yet laid out a clear road map for implementing its priorities. The administration says it intends to eliminate the Clean Power Plan and other environmental policies of the Obama administration, yet it promises that “protecting clean air and clean water, conserving our natural habitats, and preserving our natural reserves and resources will remain a high priority.”
It's not yet clear how the administration's priorities will fare in Congress. Republicans control both Houses, but their narrow majority in the Senate means they will need to muster Democratic support to enact significant policy changes. Democrats will likely push back against Republican attacks on existing environmental policies and programs.
At such an uncertain time, with political passions running high, how should environmentalists proceed?
First, we should remember what we have working in our favor. While the environment may appear to be a partisan issue in Washington, DC, most Americans support common sense policies to protect our air, land, water, oceans and climate. In the 2016 elections, voters in a dozen states—red and blue—approved ballot measures that will devote $4.4 billion to protect the environment. Some of these measures passed with majorities of 80 percent or more. At a time of historic political division, nature can unite us.
This doesn’t mean that Americans agree on how best to protect nature. Many of our partisan disagreements on the environment boil down to how we should protect nature, not whether we should.
The Nature Conservancy has succeeded in our mission for more than sixty years by listening to people whose lives and livelihoods depend on nature and creating conservation solutions that protect the environment and address their interests. We know from our work in all 50 states and 70 countries around the world that the needs of people and nature aren’t necessarily in conflict—indeed people need nature to thrive.
In that spirit, we offer a few core principles that we believe both Republicans and Democrats can embrace to make progress on our nation’s—and the world’s—environmental challenges.
Be inclusive. Both parties heard loud and clear in last year’s elections that too many people feel left behind or overlooked. Our environmental policies need to address the interests of all Americans—especially those whose lives and livelihoods depend on the health of our natural resources. This means that both urban and rural communities and Americans of all colors, genders and ethnicities need a voice in environmental policymaking.
Follow the science. Knowledge about the state of our environment is growing rapidly. While uncertainties remain, we know that human-induced climate change is harming communities across the country and around the world. We know that growing numbers of people globally lack clean water, clean air and healthy soils. More importantly, we are developing effective technologies and practices to address these threats to human health and well-being. Sound science should be the basis of environmental policymaking, and we should continue to invest in science and technology.
Harness market forces. America has shown over the past 40 years—since we enacted our first major environmental laws—that we can grow our economy and improve our environment simultaneously. In fact, our most successful companies are showing that clean technologies and practices are better for business. Smart environmental policy puts market forces to work to improve environmental outcomes while reducing costs and creating opportunity for innovation. As Congress and the President consider tax reform, they should look for opportunities to incentivize environmental innovation.
Encourage collaboration. The Nature Conservancy’s own experience shows that the most effective, durable conservation successes result from collaborative efforts between resource owners, the private sector, environmental organizations and local, state and federal governments. For example, collaborative efforts between farmers, conservationists, food and agriculture companies and state and federal agencies are helping to reduce water pollution and boost farm incomes in key watersheds like the Mississippi River and the Great Lakes. This kind of collaboration isn’t easy, but it’s the most promising path for conservation policy, and it’s supported by Republicans and Democrats alike. The Farm Bill, likely a priority for this Congress, is a powerful vehicle to encourage this type of collaboration.
Invest in nature’s solutions. Nature is valuable in its own right, but it’s also a cost-effective solution to pressing infrastructure problems. In cities like Washington, DC, Philadelphia, Detroit and Seattle, “green infrastructure” in the form of wetlands, open space and permeable surfaces helps manage stormwater runoff and reduces the need for expensive upgrades to municipal drainage systems. Along the nation’s rivers and coastlines, restoring wetlands and reefs helps to manage flooding and reduces the need for expensive enhancements to levees and seawalls. As Congress and the administration consider new investments in infrastructure, investing in nature is a promising solution.
Accelerate the transition to clean energy. Over the last decade, the cost of renewable energy has declined dramatically and inexpensive natural gas has replaced coal as the largest source of electricity. As a result, our economy has grown while emissions of greenhouse gases have declined. America is a leader in the clean energy revolution. We can address the impacts of climate change and enhance our economic competitiveness by accelerating this transition to clean energy. Industrial states like Ohio, for example, which historically depended on coal, are showing that you can boost economic output and create more jobs by investing in clean energy and energy efficiency. A federal price on carbon would help accelerate this transition. Internationally, the United States should continue to lead the world in implementing the Paris Agreement.
Lead other nations on shared challenges. Some environmental problems, like climate change and marine fisheries, require international cooperation to solve, because the issues transcend borders and because solutions can be undermined by economic competition among nations. The United States has been a leader in forging international agreements, as President Reagan led the Montreal Protocol to protect the ozone layer and President Obama led the Paris Agreement on climate change. U.S. leadership will be vital to the success of the Paris Agreement and other environmental accords. We can also negotiate strong environmental standards in international trade agreements, which will help level the competitive playing field for American firms and workers, a priority for the administration.
Manage the impacts of development at a landscape scale. A growing economy will require more infrastructure for energy, transportation and other sectors. TNC has worked with infrastructure developers to pioneer an effective approach to landscape planning that allows development to proceed while safeguarding fragile natural habitat. State and local governments around the country, as well as the Interior Department and other federal agencies, are beginning to adopt this approach. It’s a promising policy to resolve disputes between environmental protection and economic development.
Maintain and enhance core laws and policies. America led the world in enacting effective laws and policies to protect the environment. This was a bipartisan effort of Republican and Democratic leaders over more than four decades. While policies can always be improved, and some regulations should likely be revisited, our bedrock environmental laws have stood the test of time and have created a cleaner environment and a stronger economy for all Americans. We should not abandon or weaken these laws and policies, which have served us so well. To the contrary, Congress and the President should work with the environmental, public health and business communities to look for ways to enhance our environmental policies to deliver even better environmental and economic outcomes for the 21st century.
Unleash America’s creativity. Lastly, and most important, we need to revive the bipartisan, “can-do” spirit that fueled so much progress in America’s history, including our success in restoring our environment and conserving our natural heritage. American ingenuity is one of the most powerful forces the world has ever seen. No matter how divisive our politics may appear, Americans know how to work together to make the future better than the past. We always have, and we can again now.
We just need to get to work.