Can environmentalism become a bipartisan movement again?

Though now one of the most politically divisive issues in the country, the environmental movement once enjoyed strong support from both Democrats and Republicans. In his new book “Getting to Green,” author Fred Rich asserts that a return to those bipartisan roots is key for future success. Rich joins Hari Sreenivasan for more.

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    Last Friday, Earth Day was celebrated for the 47th time since its inception in 1970. From the beginning, the environmental movement had strong support from both Democrats and Republicans.

    Returning to the movement's bipartisan roots is key for future success, says Fred Rich.

    I recently spoke to rich for this latest addition to the "NewsHour" Bookshelf.

    Fred Rich, thanks for joining us.

    FRED RICH, Author, "Getting to Green": You're welcome Hari. I'm glad to be here.


    You have been a corporate lawyer for 30 years and worked with industry that perhaps the green movement wouldn't find friendly.

    And, on the other hand, you have been a conservationist for just as long working with land trusts. So, where are you coming at this book from?


    When I criticize the green movement and call them on some of their recent failings, so they know it's from a position of solidarity, right, I mean, complete sympathy with the goals.

    I want to see the green movement succeed. So they know that I'm coming at it from that side. Equally, the right at least knows I was a registered Republican until 2012, pretty solid fiscal conservative. It breaks my heart to see that the conservative movement in America has really abandoned a century of tradition of support for conservation of the environment.

    So, I hope each side will have something they don't like and I hope that there's something equally that each side sees that it does like.


    I want to pull up a quote from a State of the Union address: "Shall we make peace with nature and begin to make reparations for the damage we have done to our land, to our air, and to our water? It has become a common cause of all people of this country, clean air, open spaces. These should once again be the birthright of every American."

    This was 1970. It was Richard Nixon delivering this.




    To bipartisan applause.


    Correct. It was amazing.

    Richard Nixon, who I have to say was no nature lover, but he was a very savvy politician. And Richard Nixon believed that clean air and clean water was a cause that transcended class, it transcended party. He was very nervous that the Democrats not get out front on environment.

    And he was dealing in 1970 with deep divisions in the country from the civil rights movement and especially at that moment the Vietnam War. And Nixon had the idea that environment could heal those wounds, that environment was an issue that would bring both sides together. Pretty ironic, given where we are today.


    Now, we're in this almost hyper-partisan world where we can't even acknowledge that the other side should have a right to exist.

    You called it the great estrangement that has happened. Explain that.



    We always seem to think that the political landscape of the moment is permanent. Right? It's not permanent. I think that it's absolutely not only required that we return to some degree of bipartisan action, but also that it's possible.

    And if you study what happened as late as 1990, when we solved acid rain on a completely bipartisan basis, you understand that it is possible and it's the norm. The current situation is the aberration.


    How did individual Americans get to this point, where in the '70s, we thought the environment was one of our top three priorities, and today not even in the ballpark?


    I looked at a lot of very interesting social science work and also work of the so-called moral psychologists, who look at how we develop our political opinions in the first place.

    And there were two things that came out of it. This wasn't a bottoms-up change. It was a top-down change. The leaders of movement conservatism and the tactical leaders of the right decided that this change of position was tactically desirable. And the rank and file followed suit.

    It wasn't the other way around, which I think is fascinating and very promising. What the moral psychology teaches us is to change the hearts and minds of the people for whom anti-environmentalism is a mark of identity. It's a mark of what it is to be a conservative. Right?

    To change that requires leadership from within that community, and some people have emerged to do just that.


    Now, you also take the green movement to task.

    And there is a quote here. You say that it's aging, it lacks the diversity of the nation it serves, and rests on a base of support that is broad, but perilously shallow.



    Seventy to 80 percent of Americans consistently say they care about clean air and clean water and consider themselves environmentalists. That's what I mean by broad. But when you ask them to rank the things they say they care about in order of priority, consistently, environment has come in dead last.

    It will never translate into political power until people prioritize it, right, in their list of issues, and hold the politicians accountable.

    The movement has to become politically active again, Hari. On Earth Day in 1970, 20 million people turned out on the street, 20 million people from both parties. So, we have to recover that energy of a mass political movement that we had in the early days.


    So, you have prescriptions here. You say reconnecting conservatives to conservation, the philosophy that puts people first, and reforming the green movement.

    How do your prescriptions, how would they work?


    We have to take away the — some of the reasons and some of the perceptions on the part of the right that have led to the attitude on climate change, right?

    And one of those is that the green movement is against growth, right, is against business, is anti-capitalist, that it doesn't care about people. I mean, the criticism that environmentalists care more about the snail darter than the people is a politically devastating one, and it can be somewhat true.

    I mean, 50 percent of our population is now going to live in cities. We have to be relevant to that 50 percent, or we're never going to have the political power to do what it takes on climate change. Right?

    We have to learn to take smaller steps and incremental steps and show that there are things that we can do to make progress, to get rid of hopelessness. You know, one of the great critics of the environmental movement said that Martin Luther King said, I have a dream, and 40 years later, we had an African-American president.

    The environmentalists said, I have a nightmare, and 40 years later haven't really accomplished much. People respond to a vision of hope. So, we have to change the style of the movement. We have to change the perceptions of what we want. And, basically, we can't do it ourselves.

    People on the right have to show leadership. And they're starting to do that. That's one of my reasons for real optimism.


    All right, Fred Rich.

    The book is called "Getting to Green: Saving Nature: A Bipartisan Solution."

    Thanks so much for joining us.


    Thank you, Hari.

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