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Can bi-partisan environmentalism exist in today's politically polarized world?


"No generation has a freehold on this earth. All we have is a life tenancy -- with full repairing lease." - Margaret Thatcher

After running across this quote in a Twitter feed, I began thinking of the origins of the environmental movement and the current state of the politics of environmental protection.  In our politically polarized world, there seems to be very little common ground between those who identify themselves as "conservatives" and those who think of themselves as "progressive" or "liberal."


Some conservatives who are concerned about the western world's reliance on fossil fuels view those supporting a reduction in fossil fuel use and controls on carbon as bent on a war against capitalism by imposing a socialized world regime that punishes the West in favor of emerging and third-world countries.  Liberals and progressives look at conservative claims about concern about the environment with a jaundiced eye, assuming that the calls for smaller government and less regulation are merely licenses for business to return to the days when the Cuyahoga River burned.  Very few seem to want to meet anywhere in the middle.


But it wasn't too long ago when British Prime Minister and conservative icon Margaret Thatcher could make such a statement and back it up with concrete policies with the support of both Conservative and Labour leaders.  Who is today's version of Margaret Thatcher?

To waste, to destroy our natural resources, to skin and exhaust the land instead of using it so as to increase its usefulness, will result in undermining in the days of our children the very prosperity which we ought by right to hand down to them amplified and developed." - Theodore Roosevelt.

The modern environmental movement can trace its roots to the early days of the last century.  Republican Theodore Roosevelt ushered in the movement by setting aside vast tracts of federal lands for the protection of forests and other wild places, the establishment of wildlife preserves, and urging the protection of natural resources for future generations.  He created 51 wildlife refuges, 18 national monuments and the National Parks Service.

"We can no longer afford to consider air and water common property, free to be abused by anyone without regard to the consequences.  Instead, we should begin now to treat them as scarce resources, which are no more free to contaminate than we are free to throw garbage into our neighbor's yard." - Richard Nixon

The current environmental regulatory regime traces its origins to President Richard Nixon.  His Administration along with a Democratically-controlled Congress created the Environmental Protection Agency, the Council on Environmental Quality and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.  With the help of Democrats, he signed into law the National Environmental Policy Act, the Clean Air Act, and the 1972 amendments to the Clean Water Act.


In the 1980s, few conservative voices garnered more respect than British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.  Yet, her environmental policies were quite progressive.  She supported sustainable economic development, environmental protection of the air and water, and global impacts of human endeavors, including global warming, which she likened to "a massive experiment with the system of this planet itself."  In fairness, there currently exists a debate about whether she has recanted her views on global warming.


In the post-Thatcher world, there have been environmental successes that owe their existence to conservative leaders.  In Michigan, Governor John Engler created the blueprint for brownfield redevelopment when he oversaw the restructuring of Michigan's version of Superfund.  In an effort to stop the emission of sulfur dioxide, the main culprit in acid rain, conservatives championed a market-based mechanism to reward SO2 reductions known as "cap and trade," which President George H.W. Bush signed into law.  Ironically, a proposed cap and trade regime based on the success of SO2 reductions for carbon has been called "socialism" by today's conservatives.


Yet, today, there does not appear to be a conservative voice on the forefront of the environmental protection who is willing to work with those from across the aisle to resolve pressing concerns about environmental protection and natural resource conservation.  Senator Lindsey Graham came close when he voiced support for climate change legislation, but he soon abandoned that effort in the name of party unity.  And while it takes two to tango, one doesn't see too much stomach for reaching agreement on concrete policies.


We can see that there is a long and honored tradition of environmental protection in conservative circles.  Who will pick up Teddy Roosevelt's banner in the 21st Century? 


The author, Saulius Mikalonis, is an environmental attorney with over 25 years of experience in the Bloomfield Hills offices of Plunkett Cooney.  He is also the author of The Green Blawg, in which he writes about environmental law issues for the non-lawyer.  In addition to practicing law, Mr. Mikalonis is an adjunct professor at the Thomas M. Cooley Law School, Auburn Hills Campus, at which he teaches a course entitled "Sustainable Development Law & Policy" and a Board Member of the Detroit Regional Chapter of the United States Green Building Council (USGBC).
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