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James Cullimore

A History of Conservative Environmentalism from Theodore Roosevelt to Theresa May

"In a word, we have thoughtlessly, and to a large degree unnecessarily, diminished the resources upon which not only our prosperity but the prosperity of our children and our children’s children must always depend." - President Theodore Roosevelt, 1908

So said President Theodore Roosevelt more than a century ago. His summary is even more pertinent today than it was back then. Despite his own commendable efforts and those of other environmentally conscious leaders, the deterioration of the natural world which sustains us has only accelerated over the past 100 years.

Yet two of the most significant interventions to try and arrest this precipitous trend have come from centre-right leaders: Republican President Theodore Roosevelt in the U.S. and Conservative Prime Minister Theresa May in the UK. Roosevelt was instrumental in establishing what is now America’s National Park System, which has since been replicated by many other countries, protecting some of the remaining fragments of natural habitat across the world. And in 2019, under the leadership of Theresa May, the UK became the first major economy to commit to net zero emissions by 2050, a target which is now being replicated by a growing number of countries across the globe. This short history and accompanying timeline challenges the left’s claim to hegemony over environmental concern and action, and sets out the legacy upon which today’s generation of centre-right leaders must build if we are to fulfill our obligation to leave the environment in a better state for future generations.

Roosevelt’s Conference of the Governor’s speech, from which the opening quote originates, is a seminal speech in the history of the conservation movement, of which the Roosevelt administration was in the vanguard. The text should be required reading for all conservatives, who will not fail to notice the extent to which his arguments for protecting America’s natural resources are rooted in the tenets of traditional conservatism, including Burke’s intergenerational social contract, the importance of economic resilience and security, the notion of civic duty, unabashed patriotism, and an inherent faith in the inventiveness and ingenuity of mankind. It is the conservative case for environmental action writ large.

For too long, the left has dominated the conversation on environmental issues, and on climate change in particular. But there is nothing inevitable about this - as the suitability of conservative ideas to environmental action demonstrates.

The convergence between conservation and conservatism should come as no surprise - they possess the same etymological roots after all. Yet too often those on the centre-right are cast by those on the left as condoning, or even perpetuating, environmental harm.

This is antithetical to what it means to be a conservative. As Margaret Thatcher identified, “the core of Conservative philosophy and of the case for protecting the environment are the same.” The father of modern conservatism Edmund Burke was the first to put the moral case for conserving our natural inheritance, lest we “leave to those who come after … a ruin instead of a habitation.” The impulse which drives even the most feverish environmentalist, to protect the environment and mitigate climate change in the interest of future generations, is a conservative rather than a radical one. 

But it is important to note, particularly given the temporal and geographical scope of this timeline, that conservatism possesses no unitary meaning beyond the desire to conserve. It is a political tradition which has evolved and diversified in the centuries since Burke’s polemic on the French Revolution.

Today, it provides an umbrella term under which a plethora of different intellectual, cultural and spiritual traditions congregate. There are communitarians and individualists, traditionalists and modernists, Christian democrats and Hayekians, nationalists and internationalists, theists and atheists. After all, one of the distinguishing features of conservatism is that it is non-ideological, pragmatic and pluralist. This heterogeneity is at least partially reflected in the various governments and political leaders included in the accompanying timeline, but all are positioned on the centre-right within their national political landscape.

For too long, the left has dominated the conversation on environmental issues, and on climate change in particular. But there is nothing inevitable about this - as the suitability of conservative ideas to environmental action demonstrates. It is historically contingent, a product of the green movement in the West, which itself was born out of the rapid economic and cultural change of the post-war period, emerging at the same time as the economic ideas of the right triumphed across most of the globe towards the end of the 20th century. The wrath of the green movement was therefore targeted at the prevailing orthodoxy of the time, free-market capitalism, and its intellectual advocates. Yet environmental harm is not unique to any one system, as the ecological disasters which took place under Soviet communism demonstrate.

Consequently, in recent decades conservatives have too often shirked asserting their support for protecting the environment, deterred by the anti-capitalist rhetoric of those sounding the alarm. The debate around climate change has also become bound up with the broader cultural antagonisms between the left and right, most notably in the U.S.

The aim of this timeline, and the journal more broadly, is to help reclaim the narrative from the left and highlight conservative action on the environment. Indeed, it has often been conservative leaders who have led the way in the past. Canada made its first commitment to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in 1988 under Conservative Prime Minister Brian Mulroney. This target was revised in Canada’s Green Plan in 1990 which aimed to stabilize emissions at 1990 levels by 2000, which Canada then committed to at the Rio Earth Summit in 1992. Mulroney was honoured as “the greenest prime minister in Canadian history” in 2006, in recognition of his pioneering work in protecting the environment.

In Australia during the late 1970s and early 1980s, Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser took great strides to protect Australia’s wildlife  - notably establishing the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park to protect it from oil drilling. In 1981, the reef was designated a World Heritage Site, along with Kakadu National Park. In his later life, Fraser urged Australia to do more to tackle climate change, supporting the ‘Say Yes’ campaign which called for a carbon price. At the end of the 20th century, John Howard’s government introduced further protections for Australian wildlife and set Australia on the path to a clean energy future.

More recently, President Felipe Calderón took steps to position Mexico as a global leader in tackling climate change during his period in office, overseeing a successful UN climate conference in Cancun in 2010 and implementing a Climate Change Act in 2012.

Climate leadership from the right can still be seen today - more than half of the governments which have set coal phase-out dates are on the centre-right. The centre-right Chile Vamos coalition government has pledged to slash the share of coal in Chile’s electricity grid from 40% to 20% by 2024, with a view to phasing out the fuel completely by 2040 and achieving carbon neutrality by 2050. Prime Minister Modi in India has set ambitious renewable energy targets for 2022 and 2030, and India has had considerable success in developing renewable energy and bringing down its cost through large-scale clean energy auctions over the past decade.

Getting to net zero can create millions of well-paid green jobs in sectors like renewable energy and in the development of clean technologies such as electric vehicles and carbon capture. Ambitious nature restoration projects can also create jobs and build resilience against future climatic changes, as Prime Minister Imran Khan is demonstrating in Pakistan.

Successive conservative governments in the UK have led the way since 2010, becoming the first nation to set a coal phase-out date and the first major economy to commit to net zero. Next year, the UK will host the next UN climate conference (COP26) in Glasgow - a unique opportunity to showcase conservative leadership on the environment. Meanwhile, Japan’s centre-right government has pledged to host the greenest Olympic Games ever next summer.

But we remain a long way from meeting the scale of the challenges we face from climate change and biodiversity loss. With nearly a quarter of global territorial emissions under the jurisdiction of conservative governments, we urgently need more conservative policymakers to become climate leaders, and to champion this conservative tradition. Modi should halt the expansion of coal and set India on a path to phasing out the fuel altogether. In Germany, Merkel must match her rhetoric on climate change with action - ensuring Germany’s climate targets are aligned with net zero and that the policies are in place to meet them, including bringing forward the coal phase-out date to 2030.

Getting to net zero can create millions of well-paid green jobs in sectors like renewable energy and in the development of clean technologies such as electric vehicles and carbon capture. Ambitious nature restoration projects can also create jobs and build resilience against future climatic changes, as Prime Minister Imran Khan is demonstrating in Pakistan. 

Although not an exhaustive list, the following timeline features some key interventions on the environment from centre-right leaders over the past century. It is now incumbent upon this generation of conservatives to reassert its ideational heritage as stewards of the natural environment, and build on the legacy of previous centre-right leaders by taking ambitious action to mitigate climate change and conserve the
natural world for posterity.