Policy Studies Energy and Environment

A conservative approach to environmental principles


Todd Myers
Associate Fellow


The lyrics of the classic hymn “America the Beautiful” – written by the poet Katharine Lee Bates during an 1893 trip to Pike’s Peak – testify to the natural splendor of the United States. But it is sometimes underappreciated that among those who most want to preserve those “amber waves of grain” and “purple mountain majesties” are many who also believe strongly in the country’s other lasting inheritance – a free market.

Reducing our impact on the environment is a fundamentally conservative principle. Rather than seeing people as separate from nature, or inherently harmful to the environment, conservatives understand that stewardship of the land honors nature as both bounty and beauty. Conservatives believe you should have the freedom to choose how to live, but take responsibility to pay for the impact you cause. Just as conservatives understand that punishing criminals for their crimes is superior to blanket gun-control regulation, we believe those who put pollution in a stream should pay for the loss of clean water and opportunities to fish.

Alas, that core conservative principle has not always translated into a consistent environmental agenda. Ever since the early 1970s, environmentalism has been synonymous with left-wing, big-government policies. From the expanding authority of the Environmental Protection Agency to numerous state and local regulations, the voices of those who revere nature, but are skeptical of expanding regulation, have been lost. This has created problems both for conservatives and for the environment.

In the public imagination, concern for the environment has become virtually synonymous with calls for increased government regulation. As a consequence, any time an environmental problem arises, the public immediately looks for more regulation or more taxes. Conservatives themselves appear to have internalized this connection, leaving right-of-center legislators with few policy options to address environmental concerns in ways that do not expand the size and scope of government.

Without an alternative approach to environmental policy, conservatives can feel boxed in, forced to claim environmental problems either are a “hoax” or not as serious as environmentalists claim. This is, indeed, sometimes the case. But where there is real pollution or other problems of environmental degradation, the standard conservative line of defense is untenable. Lacking effective policy alternatives, each fight over environmental issues that conservatives lose necessarily means more government expansion. For those who believe in the American ideals of freedom and free enterprise, the path ahead is one of slow but inevitable retreat.

What relatively few realize is that the political left’s reflexive preference for more regulation often has been demonstrated to be bad for the environment. Witness the poor record of the Endangered Species Act. Only 1 percent of listed species have recovered and, in some cases, regulations actually have actually encouraged habitat destruction. As noted by Michael J. Bean – former head of the Environmental Defense Fund’s wildlife program and current principal deputy assistant secretary for Fish and Wildlife and National Parks at the U.S. Interior Department – in a 1994 address: “The red-cockaded woodpecker is closer to extinction today than it was a quarter century ago when the protection began.”

The U.S. Conference of Mayors Climate Protection Agreement – a pledge initiated by the City of Seattle in 2005 to reduce emissions to 7 percent below 1990 levels by 2012 – stands as another dramatic failure. Few, if any, of the more than 1,000 cities that ultimately signed the document ever even attempted to meet its carbon-reduction targets.

Conservatives and others who believe in the free market need an alternative to the failed 1970s environmental approach of ever-expanding government bureaucracy. Rather than simply refusing to acknowledge environmental risk, conservatives need approaches that honor our belief in personal freedom while demanding actual environmental results.

From cooperative approaches to market forces, there are several options that offer effective alternatives to the standard big-government approach. Outlined here is a priority list of approaches to environmental policy, beginning with cooperative and property-rights-based approaches and turning to regulation only when it is the only effective and reasonable option.

It is time for conservatives, many of whom surround themselves every day with the natural beauty described in “America the Beautiful,” to put environmental policy back on track. With these principles, we can, as the seldom-sung second verse says, make environmental policy: “A thoroughfare for freedom beat across the wilderness.”

Featured Publications