Protecting the planet is a conservative value, too

When reviewing the discourse on climate change, one may immediately notice that it is dominated by the Left. Look no further than Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s “Green New Deal” proposal announced last February. 

Her proposal presents a progressive vision to combat climate change, with new regulations that would stretch into nearly every facet of life. Its tenets, sourced from the resolution itself and its accompanying “FAQ” document, are rather ambitious. It would include converting the nation’s power grid into a renewable-energy base, an overhaul of public transportation, a reform of the agriculture sector to reduce methane emissions (the source of the “farting cows” talking point), and a strengthening of labor laws.

Unfortunately, the modern-day American conservative movement, as represented in the Republican Party, has a markedly different stance on climate issues––to the point, in some cases, of denying climate change outright.

President Trump, for example, has said in the past that “the concept of global warming was created by and for the Chinese” in order to undermine the United States’ manufacturing sector. His administrative actions suggest that this was more than just a mere rhetorical jab. His Department of Energy has championed “clean coal” carbon-capture methods, but only one such power plant in the entire country uses this technology, and the positive environmental impact is limited.

There also seems to be no push by this administration to transition away from coal as a primary source of power. For instance, the Trump administration announced plans to roll back an Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulation that governs the toxic ash waste produced by coal-fired power plants. Additionally, the new EPA director is former coal industry lobbyist Andrew Wheeler, who has continued the agenda of rolling back environmental regulations.

One may ask, why do Republicans have such a combative stance on climate issues? It is not as if conservatism has always been this way; in fact, it is quite the opposite. Russell Kirk, the famed traditionalist conservative (and fellow Michigan resident) wrote in the 1970s that “there is nothing more conservative than conservation.” The recently-deceased British philosopher Roger Scruton connected environmental issues to Edmund Burke’s view of society as “a partnership between the living, the unborn and the dead.” 

If more people, in Scruton’s eyes, “accept[ed] that the most important thing the living can do is to settle down, to make a home for themselves, and to pass that home to their children,” then people would take a greater interest in addressing environmental issues. If we destroy the planet, our temporary home on this journey of life, and give our children a defiled, polluted world, then we reject that partnership that is so foundational to the conservative worldview. 

Republican President Theodore Roosevelt left a legacy of environmental conservation by establishing national parks, forests, and other nature reserves on millions of acres of federal land. Republicans would be well-served to return to their roots on this vital issue. Young conservatives are already demanding it, as a majority of young, right-leaning Americans believe that the federal government can do more to reduce the effects of climate change. This may be a sign of a political wind change in the years to come.

These poll numbers are only one of many markers that Republican attitudes towards climate change are evolving. The bipartisan Climate Solutions Caucus, founded in 2016, had four senators from each party join in 2019. Additionally, new organizations such as the American Conservation Coalition are run by young, social media-savvy conservatives who “believe that people, businesses, and the government can work together to solve the nation’s environmental issues without sacrificing our economic prosperity or our rights as Americans.” Most encouragingly, the House GOP recently came out with its climate plan, which featured a three-pronged focus on carbon capture, funding for research into renewable energy sources, and funding for cleanup of plastic waste.

Those wishing to see a more local approach to these issues need to look no further than Notre Dame’s own recent milestone: last year, for the first time, the power plant on campus ceased to burn coal. University President Fr. John Jenkins, C.S.C., said in a statement that “Guided by the wisdom of Pope Francis in his encyclical Laudato Si’, we have used a multi-faceted strategy to make our campus more sustainably responsible.” It is everyone’s responsibility to ensure that the world we pass on to future generations is not destroyed by our actions, for the consequences of remaining on our current path are catastrophic.

Indeed, as Pope Francis exhorted the world in his 2015 encyclical letter, “All of us can cooperate as instruments of God for the care of creation, each according to his or her own culture, experience, involvements and talents.” The Holy Father also quoted his predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI, who said that creation is harmed “where we ourselves have the final word, where everything is simply our property and we use it for ourselves alone. The misuse of creation begins when we no longer recognize any higher instance than ourselves, when we see nothing else but ourselves.” 

Instead of “tilling and keeping” the planet, as God commanded our forerunners in the Garden of Eden, humanity has, as Pope John Paul II wrote in his 1991 encyclical Centesimus annus, “…set himself up in place of God and thus end[ed] up provoking a rebellion on the part of nature, which is more tyrannized than governed by him.” It is this selfish domination, this conquest of nature that, following the existential threat climate change poses to humanity, may eventually lead to our own demise. 

We may have achieved victory over the natural world, but as Russell Kirk wrote in 1968: “like other merciless conquests, this victory may end in the destruction of the victor.”

Luke Koenigsknecht is a freshman electrical engineering major from Grand Rapids, Michigan. He likes trains, and can be reached at