The Republican Environmental Platform: Making Facts an Endangered Species

The Republican Party's 2016 standard-bearer may be its standard-setter as well. | Photo: Gage Skidmoresome rights reserved

Commentary: In a diverse, pluralistic society disagreement is par for the course. We’re expected to advocate for our own opinions, give conflicting opinions a fair hearing, and come to equitable conclusions that respect as many conflicting viewpoints as possible.

For this to work, players in the political process have to present their arguments as honestly, as ethically, as possible. Deception is the bane of democracy; a misinformed electorate cannot make the kind of decisions a citizen is called on to make in this increasingly complicated world. This is nowhere more important than in political platforms, the documents by which parties make their broad electoral positions known. Honest differences in your interpretations of the facts are one thing. Basing your political platforms on falsehoods is another. It’s a betrayal of the voters, and of the very process of democracy.

Regardless of your political leanings, regardless of your feelings about individual candidates and the merits of each party’s general political outlook, one hopes we can all agree that statements in a party platform offered up as fact should actually be factual. The environmental portions of the Republican Party’s 2016 platform fail that test abysmally.

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This isn't a new criticism, as even traditionally conservative media outlets are starting to look askance at the stream of unverifiable assertions coming from  the party's Presidential candidate, and it would appear that Donald Trump's disregard for pesky facts doesn't make him unique in his party. The 2016 Republican platform's environmental content consists mainly of the anti-environmentalist version of urban legends, 

The untruths in the Republican platform’s environmental planks range from the specific to the systemic, from those that can almost be waved off as minor misinterpretations of facts to those that utterly rewrite the scope of American environmental history. They include misstatements about physical sciences and misstatements about their opponents’ motives and intellectual capacity.

That’s not to say that other parties’ environmental platforms are flawless; they are not. Bending the truth is an unfortunately common political practice, and more than one of the environmental policies advocated in the Republicans’ platform are advocated with a bit more restraint by the Democrats as well. But for full-bore, open-throated misrepresentation of the facts on the ground in the environmental world, the Republican Party’s 2016 platform is really a thing to behold.

In case you think this assessment is too one-sided, consider this passage from the platform’s discussion of fossil fuel energy:

Coal is certainly abundant. Affordable and reliable are subject to interpretation, so we’ll let those adjectives slide. But not even coal’s most ardent partisans usually claim that burning coal is “clean.” If they did, then you’d hear them objecting to the whole notion of a “Clean Coal” campaign, predicated on the more or less scientifically unsupported notion that coal can be made clean with enough research. (If it was already clean, it wouldn’t need to be made clean.)

Here’s another example. A theme that permeates the platform, in environmental planks and elsewhere, is that federal regulation is far too broad and needs to be scaled back. In the words of the platform:

The assertion that the environment is “improving” is hard to reconcile with any objective view of a world where species are hurtling toward extinction, the oceans are increasingly laden with toxic microplastics, one human being in ten lacks safe drinking water, and increasingly frequent climate-change-related events threaten not just human safety but ecological stability.

But when you consider the passage that follows the above-quoted rose-tinted view, the rhetorical sleight of hand becomes plain:

There is a small germ of truth in the platform’s blatant untruth about an improving environment: in some developed nations, the U.S. among them, some of the worst pollution has been alleviated, and better practices adopted.

An awakened public bears much of the credit for these improvements, where they exist, and that includes innovative businesses looking to do things in a more sustainable way. But the main driver of environmental improvements, where they have happened, has been government regulation. And in each case, the current Republican Party is seeking to undo exactly those regulations that have driven the improvements, and those attempts are lauded in the platform.

For the most part, the air is cleaner in America because of the Federal Clean Air Act, along with corresponding state laws that augment the Clean Air Act’s reach. According to the platform, the Republican Party wants to remove carbon dioxide from the list of pollutants covered under the Clean Air Act. The platform advocates taking responsibility for the National Ambient Air Quality Standards out of the hands of scientists and putting Congress in charge of weighing the health effects of air pollution.

This used to be a more common sight, before federal regulations. | Photo: ribarnica, some rights reserved

Similarly, lakes and rivers are somewhat cleaner in America than during the days of the Cuyahoga River Fire because of the federal Clean Water Act, and state and local laws that expand on the CWA. But the Republican platform, and the Republican Party in General, fiercely opposes a recent measure to clarify just which American bodies of water are subject to the Clean Water Act. The so-called “Waters of the United States Rule” would actually limit the scope of the Clean Water Act by defining certain bodies of water not subject to Clean Water Act enforcement by either the EPA or the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

The original Clean Water Act, signed into law by President Richard Nixon in 1972, applied only to water quality in waters defined as “navigable.” Since then, aided by scientific evidence that pollution flows downstream, the Supreme Court has held that the Act’s protections also apply to non-navigable headwaters and upstream wetlands. The Waters of the United States Rule was intended as a straightforward procedural document that excluded things like farm ponds and agricultural ditches from coverage under the Clean Water Act.

A million comments were received on the rule, most of them from individual members of the public, a significant majority in favor of the rule as written.

The Republican platform calls the Waters of the United States Rule a “travesty,” adding:

Strong language for a Rule that essentially says things like:

On one environmental topic after another, the Republicans’ platform essentially substitutes ideologically driven talking points for good science and planning.

In the arena of transportation, the platform calls attempts to “get people out of their cars” by providing alternative modes of transportation “social engineering.” The platform complains that Highway Fund money has been spent on mass transit, along with “bike-share programs, sidewalks, recreational trails, landscaping, and historical renovations. Other beneficiaries of highway money are ferry boats, the federal lands access program, scenic byways, and education initiatives.” (The notion that giving people an alternative to driving makes life easier for those who remain in their cars seems not to have occurred to the platform’s drafters.) The platform endorses an end to federal preference for hiring union labor to build projects, defunding California’s proposed high-speed rail project, and reducing the authority of the National Environmental Protection Act over highway construction projects.

Now protected from wildfires and bark beetles | Photo: thekirbster, some rights reserved

The platform’s take on forest issues? “Failed federal forest policies” are responsible for the West’s increased wildfires, and (by implication) the attacks of bark beetles that have been raising alarm throughout the west, as well as invasive species. The proposed solution? Increased logging of the national forests.

In the energy sphere, the platform works in a sidelong Solyndra reference, writing: “The taxpayers will not soon forget the current Administration’s subsidies to companies that went bankrupt without producing a kilowatt of energy.”

The platform isn’t against solar: it’s just that renewable energy sources have to compete in the marketplace without assistance, according to the Party. (Ignoring the hidden subsidies to oil and gas for the moment, it’s not an entirely unreasonable position, and solar in particular is poised to take off with little subsidy. But subsidies would mean more solar installed sooner.)

The platform includes a neat conflation of the generally pro-oil and gas Democratic Party with its environmentalist critics when it says:

Another example of the Republicans’ giving somewhat short shrift to facts, considering the Democratic National Committee is on record as having opposed such sentiments in their own platform.

Elsewhere in energy, the Republicans would streamline permitting for transmission lines, oil and gas wells on public lands, and new nuclear power plants. The party would do away with the EPA’s Clean Power Plan and ban the EPA from regulating CO2 emissions. In the platform’s words, “Climate change is far from this nation’s most pressing national security issue. This is the triumph of extremism over common sense, and Congress must stop it.”

The Republicans would end federal regulations on fracking, relegating control of that controversial process to the states. The platform also promises that the party would end a six-year freeze on development of the proposed federal high-level nuclear waste repository at Nevada’s Yucca Mountain.

When it comes to wildlife issues, the Republicans concede that “There is certainly a need to protect certain species threatened worldwide with extinction.“ That concession doesn’t extend, however, to a trio of hot-button species specified in the platform: the gray wolf, the sage grouse, and the prairie chicken.

“The Endangered Species Act (ESA) should ensure,” says the platform,

Interestingly enough, that’s a fair description of the ESA as it stands: successive generations of Republican legislators have forced the ESA to be watered down by, among other things, including consideration of property values when deciding what to designate as critical habitat for protected species. That’s historical fact the platform chooses to omit, when it continues:

The platform offers no examples of those halted projects, stunted development, or tangential policy goals.

The part of the Republicans’ platform that’s gotten the most attention from environmental activists is likely its position on public lands: it’s against them. The platform is explicit in its call to devolve federal lands to the states, a bit of Sovereign Citizen rhetoric that could have been penned by someone on the Bundy Ranch:

The Republican Party would Amend the Antiquities Act of 1906 so that a sitting president would need Congressional consent to designate a National Monument, as well as the consent of the state or states in which the monument resided.

Interestingly enough, despite much-forwarded rumors from the environmental sector that the Republican platform would privatize National Parks, the platform contains no specific mention of any such activity — though it does advocate giving states veto power over new National Parks. Conservative Republicans have advocated against parks, but the platform doesn’t mention privatizing them. Unless Congress mentions specific National Parks in that “universal legislation,” which for the most part seems unlikely given local support for almost all National Parks, said privatization would almost certainly be focused on BLM lands, National Forests, and a few National Wildlife Refuges, Malheur providing a prominent example. Which would be bad enough.

It serves as a reminder that untruths aren’t the sole property of one end of the political spectrum. With all the environmental ills contained in the Republican platform, it’s odd that green groups would feel compelled to make up a new one.

Read our commentary on the environmental content in the Democratic Party's 2016 platform.

For ongoing environmental coverage in March 2017 and afterward, please visit our show Earth Focus, or browse Redefine for historic material.
KCET's award-winning environment news project Redefine ran from July 2012 through February 2017.

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