Depoliticizing CleanTech

It really wasn’t that long ago that the environment was an issue with about equal bipartisan support in the United States.

Americans under the age of 30 might not even realize that the Republican party used to actually have very solid environmental credentials.  Theodore Roosevelt launched the National Park System, Richard Nixon spearheaded the creation of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in 1970 amid a flurry of environmentally protective action, and George H.W. Bush (a.k.a. Bush I) signed the Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990 which included (horrors!) cap-and-trade provisions for sulfur dioxide emissions.

The pro-environmental positions of these Republican Presidents mirrored the fact that Republican voters as recently as only one generation ago pressed strongly for environmental improvement.

Just 20 years ago, surveys by the Pew Research Center found that 86% of self-identified Republicans  and 93% of acknowledged Democrats supported the statement that “there needs to be stricter laws and regulations to protect the environment.” 

In this year’s American Values Survey, 93% of Democrats continue to back that same statement, but Republican concurrence has fallen by almost half, to 47%. 

In Pew’s parlance, the partisanship gap on the environment has widened from 7% to 46% in two decades. 

Interestingly, most of the widening of this gap has occurred in the past 10 years, as Republican response to the same question in 2002 was still around 80%.

Formerly an area of general agreement, the environment has become a litmus test political issue.  What has happened in the past decade so that so many Republicans have jumped off the bandwagon for environmental protection? 

It’s an interesting question, worthy of someone’s doctoral dissertation.  I speculate that the declining concern among Republicans about the environment is somehow correlated to the recent finding by Gordon Gaulet, a postdoc researcher at the University of North Carolina, that conservatives are significantly less trusting of science and scientists than they used to be

Whatever the root causes for declining Republican support for environmentalism in recent years, it’s probably really important for the cleantech sector to better understand them, as it would no doubt shed insights to help answer an even more interesting and important question:

What can be done to make environmental protection – and by extension, stronger commitment to a transition to a cleantech-based economy – more bipartisan again?

As we’ve heard time and again, it’s difficult for the private sector to make decisions and deploy capital under uncertain circumstances.  As long as cleantech is politically polarized, then cleantech is subject to wide swings in activity depending upon the political winds and whims of the day. 

Any cleantech-related policies that are passed based on the support of one party, against the opposition of another party, are very likely to be overturned when political power switches hands (which it usually does with some regularity).  For cleantech, this means that the entire business and investing environment turns positive when the Democrats hold power, and turns negative when the Republicans hold power.

We, the members of the cleantech community, can’t have this.  It doesn’t make for a bright future for any of us professionally, and all of us planetarily, being subject to start-stop cycles as the political pendulum swings.  

Whether it was earned or obtained by default, it’s simply not a good thing for the cleantech sector to be seen as an issue owned by the Democrats. 

Accordingly, the cleantech community must figure out what can be done to increase bipartisanship on environmental concerns, and make a big and ongoing outreach to the R side of the aisle.  This won’t occur overnight, and I’m not naive to think it will be easy, but we need to be playing the long-game here.

It may also mean that the cleantech community needs to create more distance from the hard-line elements of the D caucus.  Being more willing to stand as truly politically independent, not merely being seen as a tool for the Democratic party, may better serve the long-term interests of the cleantech community.

I would hope that most sane and informed people realize that neither party has a monopoly on good ideas, and that both parties (including their own, heaven forbid!) have some bad ideas.  (Of course, there is little agreement upon which ideas are the good and the bad ones.) 

In my humble opinion, the Democratic party tends to hold views on a number of issues that are economically misguided.  To the extent that cleantech leaders can become less visibly aligned with Democrats on certain issues, it may open more doors of possibility for rapprochement with Republicans.

At the risk of oversimplification, I will state as a general truism that, over the years, the Republican party has generally been the party of business.  I would further assert that the party has shifted in recent years to become the party of big business.  (Perhaps that’s mostly because that’s where the big money is.) 

There are a number of titanic American corporations that have large cleantech-related business interests or strong commitments to sustainability:  General Electric (NYSE: GE), WalMart (NYSE: WMT), Ford (NYSE: F), Dow (NYSE: DOW), DuPont (NYSE: DD).  This kind of brand-name corporate leadership helps give cleantech at least some credibility among today’s Republican base.

Alas, there are probably an even greater number of big businesses in the U.S. that are lukewarm at best about cleantech, or don’t have much direct participation in the sector.  And, there are many corporations that are downright hostile to cleantech, seeing any movement for increased environmental  protection as a competitive threat. 

Moreover, many of the CEOs of these companies are part of the inner circle of major donors and backers of the current Republican party and their like-minded trade groups and SuperPACs.  (The Koch brothers are the current bête noire, although Tom Donohue of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce also has become quite visible.)   

This set of players, representing big business interests at the expense of the environment, seems to be dominating the storytelling around the Republican campfires in recent years. 

By contrast, most cleantech businesses are not corporate concerns:  either early-stage companies that have yet to blossom into something huge, or small businesses whose voices don’t seem to carry much weight (at least currently) in the political cacophony.  They certainly aren’t in the inner circle of Republican leadership (as maybe they used to be).

Recognizing this, it seems imperative that somehow the cleantech sector needs to make more positive inroads with the large corporate interests that are now not helping us.  It would be good to learn their list of policy priorities outside the environmental realm, and perhaps offer cleantech support on some of those issues in exchange for more corporate support on some of cleantech’s issues.  Maybe some of the big guys already pretty firmly on the side of cleantech, such as those listed above, can help in this cause.

To me, the large corporates are key to greater bipartisan support of cleantech, which in turn is critical to the long-term health of our sector.  This has got to become a priority for the cleantech community.

I suspect that some of the above commentary may be controversial to many members of the cleantech community.  But I would argue that things aren’t working to our best advantage due to the hyperpartisanship of environmental concerns, which in turn means we cleantech advocates need to change our approach to depoliticize our issues.

Einstein once defined insanity as “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”  The cleantech community should be savvy enough to recognize the current American political trends, understand the dangers of these trends continuing, and be willing to do something different so as to produce a better future outcome.