01/30/2012 08:37 am ET Updated Mar 31, 2012

The Republicans Misread of Environmental Politics

As Newt and Mitt continue their ritualistic slugfest before the Republican right-wing base, it's clear that some of their over-heated rhetoric will be replayed for the independent voters who will eventually decide the race in November. Immigration will hurt these guys with the growing Hispanic vote, and their rabid anti-environmentalism will hurt them with the typical independent suburban voter.

The attack on climate science and regulation seems to be red meat for the Republican primary voters this winter, but that is a pretty soft target for attack. The political problem with climate change is that its cause cannot always be seen or smelled, and its impact is largely in the future. Attacking regulation is also easy, since rules may be respected and even understood, but they are rarely loved. Still, Newt and Mitt may be forgetting something pretty fundamental: people like to breathe. A Harris poll this fall reported that 75% of Americans support stricter environmental protection. While this broke down as 90% of all Democrats and 54% of all Republicans, even those opposing most government regulation understand the need for effective policing of environmental pollution.

The anti-pollution impulse derives from the universality of the basic human drive to protect one's home and children from damage and destruction. In excellent reporting from China last week, New York Times reporter Sharon La Franiere wrote about the politics of air pollution monitoring in that rapidly developing nation. She described the actions of some local environmental activists who have pooled their resources to buy a $4,000 air pollution monitor, and have begun to pressure the government to release additional information about air quality conditions. According to La Franiere:

Officials have claimed for years that the air quality in fast-growing China is constantly improving. Beijing, for example, was said to have experienced a record 274 "blue sky" days in 2011, a statistic belied by the heavy smog smothering the city for much of the year. But faced with an Internet-led brush fire of criticism, the edifice of environmental propaganda is collapsing. The government recently reversed course and began to track the most pernicious measure of urban air pollution -- particulates 2.5 microns in diameter or less, or PM 2.5.

As La Franiere reports, the American embassy has been monitoring air quality for over a year and a half, and despite criticism from the Chinese government, posts the monitoring results on the web. These actions in China and the polling data from the United States are reflections of the same phenomena: environmental protection is perceived as an issue of safety, security and public health.

The politics of environmental protection do not derive from some rarefied, effete, elite attraction to the aesthetics of nature. That is an image that should have gone the way of tie-dye tee-shirts and bell-bottom jeans. It derives from the same strong political impulse that results in NIMBY -- the not in my back yard syndrome. It comes from the drive to protect your own health and well-being and that of your family. Political support for environmental protection is similar to the support we see at the local level for the police, fire and emergency response units of government. Most people see these government workers as "first responders," not "pointy-headed bureaucrats."

Data on the economic impact of environmental regulation indicates that the trade-off between economic growth and environmental protection is a false one. Environmental damage is not cost free. It results in increased health care and clean-up costs, such as GE is paying to remove PCBs from the Hudson River. In addition, the need to comply with tighter rules has frequently resulted in innovation and new economic opportunity. While we have also seen factory shut downs and the export of pollution, these closures are more related to the attraction of cheap labor abroad than to the cost of regulation in the U.S. Still, the Republican primary voters must be attracted to anti-environmental arguments or Mitt's poll-driven campaign wouldn't push them. Let's expect the endless articulation of the environment-jobs trade-off to continue throughout the campaign for the Republican Presidential nomination. At that point I predict the discussion of the jobs-environment trade-off will end because the trade-off issue is largely irrelevant to the broader, mass politics of environmental protection.

Why? For the same reason that you do not do a cost-benefit analysis when trying to find health care for your sick child. A parent does not look for cost-effective health care, but for the best possible health care. Emotion, not rational analysis, drives this process. The general public's political calculus on environmental protection works something like this: If clean air or clean water costs jobs, so what? I have a job, I expect to keep it, and I need to make sure that my family doesn't breathe or drink poison. Unlike the impact of climate change, the impact of water pollution, air pollution and toxics are immediate, visible and local. That is a potent political combination in the United States and apparently in China as well.

All of this has not gone unnoticed by President Obama and his large and talented political team. Writing in Reuters last week, Deborah Zabarenko observed that with his recent (and first ever) visit to EPA Headquarters last week, Obama was signaling his return to campaign mode. According to Zabarenko:

For a Democrat who won the White House with strong green credentials, Obama has kept his environmental policies well below the radar for much of his presidency. The trip to the EPA, the rejection of the Canada-to-Texas Keystone pipeline, the long-delayed roll-out of regulations on mercury pollution and auto fuel efficiency standards suggest this is changing as Obama's re-election campaign gets into gear.

As I indicated in that article, Obama is not taking any political risk in appealing to environmentalists. Anti-environmentalists will go with whoever the Republicans nominate anyway, and by appealing to the greens he can energize his base and get them to come out and vote. It is clear that enthusiasm for Obama in 2012 will be considerably lower than it was in 2008. This time around, rather than getting folks to come to the polls to vote for "hope", he's got to get people to come out and vote for "hope not." As in: "I hope it's not Newt or Mitt." He has already begun that effort with environmentalists.