Tuesday, June 5, 2012 | 2:02 a.m.
Mitt Romney certainly has his weaknesses as a candidate, but his biggest challenge in attracting independent swing voters will be overcoming a well-earned reputation for saying whatever the Republican base wants to hear. Having watched him in the primaries, you have to wonder whether there is any issue in which he would turn to the far-right in his party and say: “I’m sorry. You have this wrong. Here’s the hard truth. ...”
One place he could start to change that perception is with the issues of energy, conservation and the environment. In recent years, the GOP base has fallen into a knee-jerk “drill, baby, drill” attitude that clean energy is for sissies and protecting the environment only hurts jobs, therefore, conservatism and conservation can’t mix. Last week, Romney traveled to a remote coal-mining town, Craig, Colo., where he trashed President Barack Obama’s green jobs record, while addressing workers wearing caps that said “Coal=Jobs.” Yes, it does, for lung doctors.
This obsession with coal and oil strikes me as wrongheaded for three reasons. First, there is a more intelligent conservative energy strategy: a campaign to develop an energy mix that is “American, diverse and clean.” Put the GOP behind whatever fuel sources or technologies the marketplace produces — be they natural gas, wind, wave, solar, nuclear, efficiency, biofuels or sequestered coal — provided they’re produced in America, give us diversity of supply and steadily move us to cleaner air.
Second, this slavish devotion to coal and oil, and sneering at environmentalism, contradicts the GOP’s long tradition of environmental stewardship that some Republicans are still proud of: Teddy Roosevelt bequeathed us national parks, Richard Nixon the Clean Air Act and the Environmental Protection Agency, Ronald Reagan the Montreal Protocol to protect the ozone layer and George H.W. Bush cap-and-trade that reduced acid rain. Does the GOP really think it will attract the idealism of next-generation voters with mottos like “Coal=Jobs”?
And, finally, the GOP’s Tea Party base has grown more hostile than ever to conservation just when some big conservation groups have redefined their missions — from protecting nature for its own sake, a noble goal, to also protecting our “natural infrastructure” that provides jobs, food and security.
This shift is best summed up by Glenn Prickett, the chief external affairs officer for The Nature Conservancy: “We spent the 20th century protecting nature from people, and we will spend the 21st century protecting nature for people.”
The conservancy has broadened its emphasis from buying up natural land and locking it away so it can never be despoiled to building lasting economic partnerships between those who control “natural infrastructure” and those who benefit from it — so both will have the interest and means to preserve it. For instance, the conservancy is working with cities in South America to organize large groups of water users — bottling plants, hydroelectric dams and water utilities — to finance the protection and restoration of watersheds upstream from their facilities. Planting trees that hold water like a sponge or protecting forests and natural vegetation that keep pollutants out of the water and prevent runoff is a much cheaper and more effective way to conserve water than building more reservoirs or treatment plants. And paying those upstream to protect this natural infrastructure gives them a sustainable means to do so.
Meanwhile, Conservation International (my wife is on the board) was founded 25 years ago to preserve biodiversity in the world’s greatest ecosystems. But some three years ago, explained its co-founder Peter Seligmann, “we realized that despite our intensive efforts to protect biodiversity, extinction rates were accelerating, fisheries were collapsing and the climate was changing. Just putting wilderness lands away in the conservation pantry was not going to work because, as people were more threatened, they would just grab it.”
So, said Seligmann, “we officially changed our mission — from protecting biodiversity alone to supporting human well-being by restoring and maintaining ecosystems that provide services to humanity.” Once you show what healthy ecosystems provide for people, “conservation” takes on a whole new meaning: healthy farms depend on pollinators, healthy rivers on the forests that filter the water and prevent soil erosion, healthy fishing grounds on preserving the coral reefs where fish spawn, healthy coastal areas on the reefs and mangroves that blunt storm surges, healthy hydroelectric power on water from cloud forests. Good stewardship of natural infrastructure=jobs, security, food and water.
That’s why conservationists and conservatives actually have more in common than ever today, depending on how Republicans define “conservative.” They can run away from a proud legacy of environmental stewardship by defining “conservative” as aligning the GOP with the cheapest dirty fuels and dying industries — and do whatever their lobbyists dictate. Or they can define “conservative” as protecting our natural infrastructure to promote clean growth — in the spirit of Teddy Roosevelt — and press for the cleanest fuel mix U.S. technology can produce. Over to you, Gov. Romney.
Thomas Friedman is a columnist for The New York Times.