By Rebecca Harrington
DALLAS — It was the afternoon before Earth Day in April when an imposing Republican stood up and declared war.
John Walsh III had spent the past half-hour sitting in the front row listening to former Democratic presidential candidate Wesley Clark, who happens to be a retired four-star general, try to convince the crowd that climate change is a national-security issue.
Then Walsh took the microphone.
“This is a war, and we need to treat it like one,” he said. “I’m on the other side of the aisle from you politically, but I’m right in the trench with you on this issue.”
It was already a day of contrasts. A conservative had organized this Earth Day celebration. It attracted 100,000 people to Texas’ state fairgrounds, including climate researchers from elite universities as far away as New York City, oil-company executives, and families.
In this polarized political environment, and at a time when many of the people running the government won’t acknowledge the reality of climate change, this sounds like a remarkable moment of common ground. But 1,300 miles from Washington, DC, this kind of agreement is commonplace.
Sixty-eight percent of Americans accept the overwhelming scientific consensus that our climate is changing, and most say they worry about it. But Texas shows it’s when we talk about it that things seem to fall apart.
Take away the charged language and start talking about clean water, clean air, and clean soil, and there’s a lot of agreement. And a lot of opportunity.
You can find consensus in the war against climate change — as long as you don’t call it “climate change.”
Walsh never had one specific moment when he accepted that the climate was changing.
His father taught him to respect the land growing up. And as a Christian, he learned to be a good steward of God’s Earth.
He’s the CEO and founder of a real-estate firm headquartered in Frisco, Texas. And he’s been a tree hugger for decades.
In 1984, the real estate firm that Walsh worked for, the Trammell Crow Company, was starting to put up some high-end office buildings in Carrollton, Texas. The site had many old-growth trees, but instead of bulldozing them wholesale, as most developers would, Walsh decided they were worth saving.
On signs in front of each tree, he wrote a message: “It took God 50 years to put this tree here. Don’t even think about moving it.”
Walsh personally signed each message so the workers would know who they’d have to answer to if they cut a tree down. By keeping all the trees, the company actually ended up saving money on energy and new plantings. Walsh says it’s logical arguments like that people need to hear if everyone is going to get onboard to fight climate change. Wear your jeans three days instead of one, he recommended, and you’d be surprised how much energy, resources, and money you can save.
It’s a modern day echo of Teddy Roosevelt-style Republicanism.
To Walsh and others in the movement, environmentalism has always been a conservative idea. They say Democrats stole the mantle.
“To conserve is conservative,” Earth Day Texas founder and Republican Trammell S. Crow said in March, when he visited Business Insider’s offices to try to persuade New York journalists to come to Earth Day Texas.
Ryan Sitton, the Texas Railroad Commissioner, agrees. An engineer by training, he was elected to the post overseeing the state’s agency regulating the oil and gas industry (much to Sitton’s chagrin, the job has nothing to do with railroads).
What Sitton finds most challenging is that because everything is so polarized these days, there’s no dialogue.
“Yes, I’m a Republican. I’m also a huge environmentalist,” he says.
“Parties are black and white. ‘Oh, Republicans are the party of the economy and jobs, and Democrats are the party of the environment.’ Yet all of us in this nation want a good economy, we all want good jobs, and we all want to protect our environment for future generations,” he told a crowd of two-dozen constituents at a town-hall-style talk. “None of those are partisan issues.”
A new message
If you want to understand how so many conservatives these days can be pro-environment and still deny climate change, meet Paul Braswell. He’s a chemist turned computer consultant who raises Texas longhorns. And he’s on the executive committee for the Republican Party of Texas.
He says there’s a common misconception that farmers and Republican landowners are all for using resources at the expense of the environment. They’re “good stewards,” he said.
He wants to protect the land. But ask him about climate change and his tone changes.
“They’re fudging their data,” he said of climate scientists. “There are flaws in their global-warming theory. And instead of adjusting their hypothesis, they’re adjusting their data.”
Braswell says that he’s more conservative than most Republicans in Texas. But his line of thinking echoes that of EPA Chief Scott Pruitt and President Trump. And it sounds a lot like what the president used as his justification for pulling the US out of the global Paris climate agreement.
Braswell is a scientist himself, of course, and when you talk with him, he’s just as likely to start talking about Einstein’s theory of relativity, or how farmers can use better chemicals for the earth.
That’s partly why, for all he does personally to protect the environment on a small scale — buying a fuel-efficient truck and limiting the use of insecticides on his land — he doesn’t believe climate change is happening. He says humans couldn’t possibly cause that much warming, and if it is getting hotter, the earth will fix itself.
Scientists leading the fight against climate change see people like Braswell as a missed opportunity.
“Climate scientists failed to relate what we know to the public,” Peter de Menocal, a renowned climate scientist at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, told Business Insider.
“There’s a big, angry mob out there. Those are very real feelings. I respect that. All I can do is tell people what I know about how the climate is changing.”
Food, water, shelter, energy
Until recently, when experts tried to convince Americans to care about climate change, they’d often show them this chart:
Over hundreds of thousands of years, the climate has gone up and down in a fairly consistent cycle, and then at the very end, it’s like a hockey stick: the amount of carbon in the atmosphere skyrockets.
It’s compelling to look at, but for many, it’s too abstract.
Former President Barack Obama can call climate change the greatest threat facing humanity, but if you can’t see it in your own life, it’s hard to really care.
That’s why at a Columbia University event at Earth Day Texas, de Menocal said when he’s trying to convince people to take climate action, he’s started referencing tangible things everyone can get behind. These are humanity’s basic needs: food, water, shelter, and energy.
In a sign of burgeoning common ground, at the town hall the next morning, Sitton was making the case that Texas could help developing nations climb out of poverty by showing them how to regulate their natural resources.
“When you look around the world and you say, what is the No. 1 thing when you talk about the basic elements of society — shelter, food, and water are the first three. When you look at society’s needs, energy is a huge component of that.”
This line is breaking through the partisanship in a way that talk of warming has not.
“The best way to communicate with those minds-made-up climate deniers is not to talk about climate change but air quality,” Crow said. Improving food, water, shelter and energy also help reduce the amount of carbon emitted, and global warming.
“Temperature can take care of itself if you deal with air quality. That’s a public-health issue; that’s not an argument. Everybody believes in that.”
A 2016 Pew survey found that 48% of Americans believed that the Earth was warming because of human activity, a belief that 69% of Democrats and 23% of Republicans share.
But concern is growing. A March 2017 Gallup poll found that 45% of Americans worried “a great deal” about global warming and 68% believed humans were causing it.
And three-quarters of Americans said in an Earth Day Pew survey that they were particularly concerned about protecting the environment, and 83% said they try to live in ways to help protect it all or some of the time in their daily lives.
So there is common ground. Now what can be done about it?
Smokestacks to carbon tax
Braswell remembers growing up on the Texas panhandle. When his grandfather worked at a factory that made carbon black, which went into black paint and tires, the smoke stacks spit out so much pollution that the white-faced cattle turned black.
So the plant installed scrubbers and filters to clean up the air. The cows returned to their normal color.
We have made progress since Rachel Carson sparked the environmental movement with “Silent Spring” in 1962, and we can keep capitalizing on that momentum.
If you listen closely, the next logical step in this climate war we’re waging is clear to liberal environmentalists — and to a growing number of Republicans.
Several conservatives, including former Secretaries of State James A. Baker III and George P. Shultz, have put forth a plan for a carbon tax.
And as a local organizer for the nonpartisan Citizen’s Climate Lobby told Business Insider at the group’s booth at Earth Day Texas, it looks a lot like plans that it’s proposing along with Democrats. A carbon tax, or carbon fee as liberals prefer to call it, would put a price on carbon dioxide.
Using another novel, market-based approach, a cap-and-trade system limiting pollution is what helped stop the acid-rain crisis.* That was passed with Democratic majorities in Congress in 1990 and signed into law by Republican President George H.W. Bush, who ran for office as the “environmental president.”
Made in America
While Braswell doesn’t think humans burning fossil fuels that emit carbon dioxide is changing the global climate, he is willing to plan for the chance that scientists are right.
The answer, to conservative Republicans like Braswell, Pruitt, and Sitton, is never more government regulation like Obama enacted — it’s innovation. You want to shut down a dirty power plant? Fine, they say, do it in a way that doesn’t kill American businesses.
“If it’s not a good idea, let’s not build it again,” Braswell said. “If there’s something better, then we can do things smarter using technology.”
His belief that American innovation can lead the way sounds just like what de Menocal of Columbia says convinces him there’s momentum to vanquish climate change.
“As long as we make enough progress in the right direction, it’s all good,” de Menocal said. “Let’s repower the planet. Let’s get miners back to work installing solar panels. If I can wave the American flag for a minute, this is the kind of challenge we respond best to. They can be the heroes of this story. From a purely conservative standpoint, fighting climate change allows us to create jobs, protect national security, and ensure American resilience. What good American doesn’t want those things?”
One example is “carbon capture,” which sucks up carbon emissions from power plants and sticks them in the ground so they don’t enter the atmosphere.
At Earth Day Texas, Business Insider asked the new US Energy Secretary Rick Perry, the longest-serving governor of Texas, whether Americans could expect more carbon-capture projects under the Trump administration.
“The short answer is yes,” he said, and he’s particularly excited that American companies can sell such technologies to our allies so they can reduce their carbon footprints.
“We make it in America. You know, made in America, sold to our friends around the world. It makes a lot of sense. I think that’s the president’s, that’s his mindset, as well, so you’re going to see a lot of technologies. Not just on the carbon-capture side, but in a host of different ways,” Perry said. “If we’re going to really affect the world, it’s going to be innovation that does that.”
Coming to grips
Minutes before Trump announced his decision to exit the Paris accord on June 1, de Menocal called. His voice was soft. He sounded beat.
Rolling back Obama-era regulations that it deems stifling to the economy at a breakneck pace, the Trump administration is slowing the federal government’s climate progress at a time when scientists say it’s crucial to speed up more than ever.
But on the phone that day, de Menocal was feeling hopeful.
“I’m not that pessimistic. I’m devastated, of course, but I’m not that pessimistic,” he said. “If you think about it, if the nation’s largest cities maintain their commitments, then we can do it without the government.”
Market forces, an appealing motivator to conservatives, can also help lead the way.
The world added more energy from renewable sources than from fossil fuels in 2015 and 2016, and the plummeting price of clean energy has allowed the US to decrease its carbon emissions over the last three years while the country’s GDP has increased.
But eventually, agreeing on clean air, water, and land won’t be enough, says Lynn Scarlett, who served as the deputy secretary and acting secretary in President George W. Bush’s Department of the Interior. Now she’s the managing director for public policy at the Nature Conservancy.
“You can drive forward a lot of solutions under the banners of clean energy, energy reliability, energy efficiency, and not have to grapple with ‘climate change’ as a word. You can do a whole lot,” Scarlett told Business Insider.
“But at some point, to really come to grips, we really need to address greenhouse-gas emissions, carbon-dioxide emissions. That requires understanding that those emissions are a pollutant. That requires understanding that those emissions are in fact responsible for a changing climate. That requires understanding that there is that linkage between human action and greenhouse-gas emissions and all these bad things we’re seeing — melting permafrost, unpredictable storms, rising sea levels. At some point, one has to really actually embrace the problem.”
Until then, there are Americans across the political spectrum clamoring for climate action. There are states making their own emissions reductions pledges, and cities making their own plans for sea level rise, and companies making their own clean-energy investments, and farmers installing wind turbines on their own land, and homeowners installing solar panels on their own rooftops.
And somewhere in Texas, there’s a Republican real-estate developer doing his part to save one tree at a time. And he’s telling us to join the war — before it’s too late.