The Impact of Conservative Populist Movements on Environmental Policies

Conservative Environmental Policies and the Trump Administration

The emergence of conservative populist movements1,2 has had a profound impact on local and global sustainability initiatives and laws. These movements have the capacity to reshape and roll back environmental protection policies.

While polling suggests Conservative voters are more concerned about climate change than Labour supporters, Conservative MPs appear to be less enthusiastic about prioritising action on climate change.

1. Deregulation of the fossil fuel industry

The Trump administration has successfully targeted and rolled back at least 90 environmental regulations that relate to mining and drilling, air and water pollution, biodiversity and land protection, and toxic substances emissions. These victories were a result of conservative coalitions that have worked hard to perfect and spread a counter-narrative against contemporary green activism.

While American conservatism has different impulses, all share a skepticism of the ability of government to solve economic and social problems and a desire to minimize government intervention in private business affairs. This explains why conservatives have found it easy to exploit the repugnant images of people drinking dirty water and forests covered in garbage and a city under a cloud of smog, as studies have shown that these repellant images can increase environmental concerns among Republicans.

2. Taxation of carbon emissions

A carbon tax provides incentives for businesses to produce goods and services that emit fewer greenhouse gases and for individuals to consume those products. Depending on its structure, the tax could also reduce the relative return to capital over labor, which would increase household incomes.

Layzer avoids drawing a caricature of conservative opposition to modern environmentalism, dismissing the existence of a well-funded “vast right-wing conspiracy.” Her book makes clear that while anti-regulatory conservatism has imparted legitimacy to a new narrative, it has done little more than slow the pace of regulatory expansion and stall new regulations. It has had little effect on scaling back mandates already imposed. The reason is simple: rhetoric can only accomplish so much. Legitimately addressing environmental concerns requires substantial policy changes.

3. Removing the Environmental Protection Agency

The EPA has been responsible for numerous environmental laws, including those on uranium mill tailings; ocean dumping; and safe drinking water. However, not everyone supports the EPA’s mission. Critics claim that the agency’s regulations impose large costs on businesses and strain the economy and international trade.

Moreover, they argue that the agency’s actions are not based on sound science and could be harmful to people. The resulting conservative anti-regulatory narrative downplays ecological concerns and promotes the idea that top-down regulatory interventions threaten individual liberty. The result is that the EPA’s effectiveness in protecting the environment is increasingly being undermined by local and international governments and corporations. Layzer notes that the rise of this narrative has led to students’ reluctance to describe themselves as environmentalists.

4. Dismantling the Clean Air Act

When a politician like Donald Trump campaigns on getting rid of the Environmental Protection Agency, bringing back “beautiful clean coal,” and pulling the US out of the Paris climate agreement, it’s no surprise that voters get scared. They want their government to protect the air they breathe and the water they drink.

During the Republican presidential primaries in 2012, candidates competed to show their disdain for the EPA and steely opposition to new federal regulations. But they struggled to articulate a positive alternative.

At the state level, conservatives have relentlessly challenged civic litigation in environmental statutes and filed counter suits against the EPA’s endangerment determination. Yet those efforts have failed to halt enforcement of existing pollution controls. Moreover, polls consistently show that the public wants their government to protect the environment.

5. Removing the Clean Water Act

Modern environmentalism has long been suspicious of government intervention, particularly at the federal level. Republicans were among the first advocates of governmental forest ownership, believing it would help prevent a timber famine and foster ecological stewardship.

A recent study by UC Berkeley suggests this assumption may be flawed. The researchers conducted a content analysis of pro-environmental videos on YouTube and op-eds in major newspapers, sorting them by themes such as harm/care and purity/sanctity. They found that when messages emphasized the need to protect the natural environment as a moral issue, they resonated more with conservatives than liberals.

In the case of the Clean Water Act, the Trump administration has moved to strip wetlands and intermittent streams from federal protection, arguing they lack a “significant nexus” with navigable waters. The Supreme Court is expected to decide on the case soon.

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