Mother Jones Writer Wonders What Happened in the ‘90s That Made Republicans Hate the Earth?

Liberals like Chris Mooney of Mother Jones agree that today’s Republican party is “environmental[ly] retrograde,” but often acknowledge it wasn’t like that a few decades ago. For example, as Mooney noted in a Tuesday post, a GOP president, Richard Nixon, established the EPA.

Mooney reports, however, that in the early 1990s the party as a whole grew distinctly more hostile towards environmentalism. He touches on several possible explanations, including a backlash against the newly elected vice president, Earth in the Balance author Al Gore, as well as a theory that after the Soviet Union collapsed, environmentalists succeeded Communists as major objects of conservative fear and hatred.

Mooney mentions "climate change" in passing, but never identifies costly and/or utopian global warming "solutions" as a breaking point, even though that was the clear political message of Gore's book. From Mooney’s post (emphasis added):

It's one of those facts that sweeps you back into an alien, almost unrecognizable era. On July 9, 1970, Republican President Richard Nixon announced to Congress his plans to create the Environmental Protection Agency and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. By the end of that year, both agencies were a reality. Nowadays, among their other tasks, they either monitor or seek to mitigate the problem of global warming—actions that make today's Republicans, Nixon's heirs, completely livid.

To give one example of how anti-environment the right today is, just consider this ThinkProgress analysis, finding that "over 58 percent" of congressional Republicans refuse to accept the science of climate change.

So what happened to the GOP, from the time of Nixon to the present, to turn an environmental leader into an environmental retrograde? According to a new study in the journal Social Science Research, the key change actually began around the year 1991—when the Soviet Union fell. "The conservative movement replaced the 'Red Scare' with a new 'Green Scare' and became increasingly hostile to environmental protection at that time," argues sociologist Aaron McCright of Michigan State University and two colleagues…

…McCright and his colleagues visualize this polarization by charting the average League of Conservation Voters environmental scores for congressional Democrats and Republicans from 1970 through 2013:

This figure suggests that the key left-right break point on the environment occurred sometime in the early 1990s. So does…a look at how Americans belonging to different political parties have answered the same General Social Survey question about the environment going back to the year 1974…

So what happened in the early 1990s? Well, for one thing, Bill Clinton was elected, flanked by a vice president, Al Gore, who had just published a book called Earth in the Balance. That made environmental issues salient in a very political way…

The authors, for their part, cite the "rise of global environmentalism with the 1992 Rio Earth Summit," which, they say, "generated a heightened level of anti-environmental activity by the conservative movement and Congressional Republicans." Here, they rely to a significant part on another 2008 paper, noting how the conservative think tank movement mobilized to oppose environmental protections in the early 1990s. The upshot is that as environmentalism became an increasingly global movement, many conservatives tarred it with the label "socialism." "Rio reflected a heightened sense of urgency for environmental protection that was seen as a threat by conservative elites, stimulating them to replace anti-communism with anti-environmentalism," that study observed.

But this is not the only possible explanation for the trends noted above…

One intriguing related hypothesis posits that the right wing has become more unwilling to compromise in general because it has become more psychologically authoritarian—closed-minded, prone to black-and-white thinking. That's not a pattern that would uniquely affect environmental issues, though. If anything, it would be felt most strongly on the topics that authoritarians most care about: crime, national defense, religion in public life, and matters of that ilk.

Whatever the cause, the consequence is clear: We can't get anything done in a bipartisan way on the environment any longer…

Tom Johnson
Tom Johnson
Tom Johnson is a contributing writer for NewsBusters