In case you missed it, conservatives deeply care about whales and the oceans now.
At least, that’s the message being sent by the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a conservative think tank that in 2021 filed suit against an offshore wind project in New England. Despite taking a lot of money from the oil and gas interests, TPPF has waged a battle over the past year and a half claiming deep concern for the whales allegedly at risk from offshore wind turbines. (I don’t remember this kind of distress coming from conservatives over how increased offshore oil development in the Gulf of Mexico may harm whale habitat, or alarm over any of the myriad studies showing that a rapidly warming ocean is going to fundamentally change life on earth, but no matter.)
While concern for the environment and simultaneous support of big, polluting industries may seem counterintuitive, the Republican party has a deep-seated streak of green running through it. Richard Nixon created the EPA in 1970; George H.W. Bush presided over sweeping amendments to the Clean Air Act in 1990. There are still some traces of these attitudes today, even if they only live in rhetorical talking points. Even former President Donald Trump, who actively worked to strip the EPA of much of its power and dismantled various environmental protections, loved to talk about “clean air” and “crystal clean water.”
Since Bush’s endorsement of the Clean Air Act, the party has seemingly done a 180 on the government’s role in protecting the environment. Now, GOP members of Congress are much more likely to float measures to ban the EPA or hamstring the Endangered Species Act.
Some historians have posited that the GOP’s increasing reliance on corporate money and special interest groups helped the party pivot away from protecting the environment and toward questioning the science behind necessary government measures to keep people and the planet safe and healthy. Climate change is the elephant in the room for this timeline: It’s no coincidence that James Hansen sounded the alarm on climate change in front of Congress in 1988 and that the oil industry’s campaign of climate denial kicked off the next year with the formation of one of the first industry-sponsored denial groups.
The Republican party is at a weird crossroads. The American public has steadily increased its acceptance of climate science and is growing more alarmed about the impacts of climate change. Red states like Florida, staring down the barrel of sea level rise, are already passing legislation to adapt, with the implicit understanding that it’s just the start of things getting worse. Even oil majors are making net-zero plans (albeit pretty worthless ones).
From some angles, it looks like climate delayism might be the GOP’s preferred tactic here—acknowledging that change is happening but refusing to actually do anything to stop it. Political leaders on the right like Dan Crenshaw, who attended the 2021 climate summit in Glasgow, and presidential favorite Ron DeSantis, who has passed some climate-friendly legislation, are great examples of this. These figureheads favor measures like planting a shit ton of trees, advancing certain adaptation measures, and boosting expensive, ineffective technology like carbon capture.
It’s not just the GOP at a crossroads. For the past decade, the American conversation around climate change has focused on combatting “deniers” on the right; much of the Democratic environmental rhetoric painted the climate crisis as a question of right and wrong. The passage of the U.S.’s first-ever piece of climate legislation last year—which is both incredibly historic and not nearly enough—signals a sea change. We have about a decade to get our shit together, and there are a lot of tough choices coming—like about how to mine for crucial minerals, how to site the enormous amount of renewables infrastructure we’re going to need, and how we’re going to ensure everyone equitably benefits from the energy transition. Conversations about climate and what we’re doing to the Earth can no longer remain as simple as deniers versus climate hawks.
Another branch of GOP faux-environmentalist is poised to take advantage of this tension: the type that uses other environmental concerns as a way to delay climate action. In an essay titled “How Climate Alarmism Killed Real Environmentalism,” published this month in American Greatness, a right-wing publication, author Edward Ring lists “environmental disasters” that he claims are not discussed “because [people are] making too much money pushing the climate change scam;” these disasters include a loss of insect diversity (partly, he claims, due to wind turbines) and oceanic garbage patches (no mention of how the oil industry keeps pushing plastic production). This is a version of the same strategy being taken by the Texas Public Policy Foundation and other organizations in trying to stop offshore wind development out of supposed concerns for whales, birds, and other marine life. (While scientists are still investigating the long-term impacts of wind on marine life, many suggest that turbines will have the same level of impact as other ocean infrastructure like oil rigs; scientists have said that turbines are not responsible for the recent spate of whale deaths along the East Coast.)
In case you needed a reminder, the driving force behind all this faux-concern: dirty money. Ring is a senior fellow at the California Policy Center, which is part of the Koch-funded State Policy Network; American Greatness is the news arm of the American Greatness Fund, a research organization and related PAC established by Trump’s former campaign manager Brad Parscale. Another conservative group that is working against wind turbines, ostensibly for whale safety, is the Caesar Rodney Institute, which is also part of the State Policy Network and has taken hundreds of thousands of dollars in oil and Koch-affiliated money.