Environment and party discipline, an inconvenient truth

The United States is often portrayed as an ecological laggard : Americans did not ratify the Kyoto Protocol (1998) and they senselessly frock their own soils to sustain their economic and energy competitiveness. This convenient statement veils a complex reality; a glance at the recent controversy around the Keystone pipeline extension will help cast a more accurate light on this debate.

The issue ownership narrative.

The Keystone pipeline is a pipeline system linking Canada and the United States. Initiated in 2010, its fourth extension, voted by the Republican House of Representatives on November 14th 2014 and approved by the new Republican Senate on January 29th 2015, is stirring a passionate controversy. While it was promoted to further reduce the energy dependence towards countries out of North America and enhance their balance of trade, a strong opposition gathered against its implementation – which translated into Barack Obama’s veto February 24th.

Such a debate seems to well encapsulate the confrontation of the two major parties regarding the environment. Republicans, advocating for the economic dynamism at a domestic and foreign levels, debunk the ecological risk that such a project represents in the eyes of the Democrats. The latter denounce the short-termist approach of their political adversaries and embrace a green stance, arguing that the pipeline aims at transporting oil that comes from tar sands, whose transformation produces far more greenhouse gas that conventional oil treatment, and that it passes above – and thus endangers – major aquifers.

This resembles basic issue ownership, meaning that in people’s minds, competence on some topics is firmly associated with one of the two parties. On the one hand, the GOP appears as the champion of industrial, works and human activities and this makes it the natural opponent of any environmental regulation. On the other, the Democratic Party is traditionally associated with regulations, and is seen as the party which privileges long-term matters – such as the environment – over direct interests. Therefore, Democrats appear to own the subject of environment whose defense can give them some electoral leverage. Therewith, the Republicans’ strategy would be to downplay or even deny the saliency of the subject, which they do not own.

In light of this logic, Obama’s veto seems to serve a broader purpose : rallying and mobilizing  supporters of the Democratic party for the next elections. This looks all the more accurate when acknowledging the fact that the pipeline only crosses states that voted Republicans in the last presidential election. Thereby, the favor of those who would benefit from the dynamism linked to Keystone XL is not necessary, hence opposing it is not a risky tactics. Yet, however coherent this theoretical split may appear, it does not correspond to the practical positions of all congressmen.

Enduring trends, a case in point : Republicans & Democrats on Keystone

As a matter of fact, environmental views do not follow the established battlelines of partisan polarization, or the supposed party discipline on those questions. Quite the opposite : this concern challenges, and even unsettles parties’ unity. As the political efficiency of a party can be measured as its ability to create a consensus around an ideological stance, the discrepancies we can observe regarding the environment expose the parties’ inner divisions.

First, on the right wing, some radical republicans avoid the environmental debate by denying its relevance. According to them, ecological problems are the creation of scientists who are trying to impose their beliefs as facts. In this perspective, Ted Cruz explained: “Satellite data demonstrate that for the last 17 years, there’s been zero warming.”  This stance concerning environmental questions conceal a broader strategy aiming at wooing partisans of the Tea Party or the religious right by challenging or even refuting the ascendency of science. However, a recent poll[1] showed that, 48% of Republican voters  said they preferred candidates who would take on climate change, we can doubt this strategy would be relevant in the general elections. Having said that, there are other variables at play : referring to another aspect of this differentiation strategy, Michael Mann explained that  “As long as the Koch brothers are pouring tens of millions of dollars into their campaigns, there’s going to be enough oxygen to keep these folks going.”

On the opposite side, some Democrats litigate for even more regulations concerning the environment. Their whole objective is to implement their recommendations by reaching Obama’s agenda. As such, Brian Deese, who was recently appointed senior advisor to Obama, is trying to apply one of the Environmental Protection Agency’s regulations by proposing a 28 percent cut of greenhouse gas pollution over the next decade. Nonetheless, claims for environmentalism and therefore dissent on the left, comes in a large part from the Green Party. Founded in 1984 and initially based on state parties, the Green Party uses grassroots politics to improve its influence. Nowadays, it seems that the Democratic party will have to deal with its recommendation as its political weight became apparent since its popular vote between the 2008 and the 2012 presidential election fourfolded.

The ground is shifting : environmental issues and the demise of partisanship?

« Sustainability and the environment is not just one person’s interest, but it cuts across the board- this is not a Republican or Democratic issue. It’s an issue of national concern » this is nothing but the blunt statement that was made by the president Gee aka the president of West Virginia University. At first sight, one may say that this statement has a lot to do with a provocative stance considering the partisan struggles that have brought environmental issues to the front burner in the US. Such a statement bodes well for the future insofar as it depicts a wonderful landscape in which environmental concerns would eventually cut across party lines. When it comes to environmental action, it often takes a crisis to impulse significant action on the part of the government. Not only has the phrase “climate change” gone mainstream but as mentioned earlier, such a bitter subject also tends to exacerbate party divisions. “Climate change” appears to be used as a political platform in order to appeal to more voters. We are now a far cry from Vice President Al Gore demanding action. But the current keystone pipeline project might constitute the dawn of a new era concerning environmental policies in the US. A shift took place from sharp partisan divide on environmental issues to strong support for environmental issues. The sharper divisions within the Senate committee on environment and public works are about to become a remnant of the past since recently the tendency is to a renewed interest for environmental issues regardless of partisan allegiance. It may sound a little provocative to assert so, but while Republicans and Democrats try to tackle environmental issues we see the rise of a third pragmatic opposition that cuts across party lines. One may wonder, why now? Well, the response might sound simple yet obvious. On closer consideration the past decade has seen little interest over environmental issues. In fact, in the wake of 9/11 as one could easily expect, the focus was set upon “national security”. Following this path, the electorate was likely to elect a party that would ensure its security instead of a party advocating beside-the-point subjects such as the environment. Well, overall the slate has been wiped clean and people seem to care a little more about environmental issues today. This combination of several factors culminated in the advent of a pragmatic response to environmental issues. Think tanks, university research centers have witnessed this small yet growing move towards a new response to environmental issues.

What better example of this phenomenon than the case in point embodied by the Keystone XL pipeline voted in November of 2014? Striking, as it may seem, no less than 31 Democrats voted in favor of the bill. As this example attests, equating environmental politics to partisan affiliation has probably gone more into mothballs than people are ready to acknowledge. Make no mistake about it; conservatives are far from being left out of the picture. Senator Gardener, for one, campaigned on a platform that advocated green energy. Not convinced yet? Well why not give a try to representatives in coal districts … couldn’t they be the ones to represent a third, practical and very structuring position? The heydays of environmental issue ownership appear to be somehow tempered down right now. Take on the one hand, the renewed interest for those subjects, the surprising shift within the republican and the Democratic Party and you’re left with something that does not resemble at all at a quagmire. Notwithstanding the underlying motives of those parties, environmental concern has reached an all-time high in both traditional parties and has slowly but surely reshaped the Senators’ and Representatives’ behavior. Will president Gee’s dream become reality?

Article by Maxime Guttin, Etienne Bretin, Maryon Nirlo

[1]  Poll conducted by The New York Times, Stanford University and the nonpartisan environmental research group Resources for the Future, January 2015

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