Paul Spella / The Atlantic

Today marks a remarkable confluence of events. April 22 was supposed to be a day when more than a billion people around the globe would attend activities in celebration of Earth Day’s 50th anniversary. But instead of gathering, we are all apart. Because many of us are wearing masks, we cannot help but be cognizant of our breathing and the quality of the air we take into our lungs. Each breath has never seemed more precious. Yet, ironically, our air hasn’t been this clean in decades, with emissions from industry and transportation at a virtual standstill, captured in vivid detail by NASA satellites.

I am a lifelong conservative. If you are surprised that someone like me is writing about Earth Day, that reaction only underscores a fundamental problem for the Republican Party. When did Republicans stop leading on environmental issues? Ours is the party of Teddy Roosevelt, who championed the protection of public lands; of Gifford Pinchot, the first chief of the U.S. Forest Service (and later the governor of Pennsylvania); and Richard Nixon, who created the Environmental Protection Agency.

The Republican Party has largely abandoned environmental issues—to its great detriment politically. Majorities of Americans say the federal government is doing too little for key aspects of the environment, such as protecting water and air quality and reducing the effects of climate change. A recent survey from the Pew Research Center finds that Democrats mostly agree that the U.S. government should do more on climate. Republicans are divided by ideology, age, and gender; moderates, Millennials, and women within the party are far more likely than conservatives, older Republicans, and men to favor more federal action. More and more, the GOP as a whole seems out of touch on this crucial issue.

While I do not believe that humans are the sole cause of climate change, we are certainly contributing to it greatly. The United States has a moral and political obligation to take action. How my conservative friends can conclude that rising global temperatures are anything but disruptive to nature is beyond belief. Those who argue that we ought to be relieved of our own responsibilities here in America because nations such as India and China are not doing enough to limit their air pollution are being disingenuous. Other countries’ behavior does not excuse us from doing whatever we can to reduce harmful emissions.

As the Republican governor of Pennsylvania from 1995 to 2001, I strongly favored energy production in my state. I continue to support policies that embrace all sources of energy, including natural gas, which has lowered our dependence on coal. I also support nuclear power, the largest around-the-clock provider of carbon-free energy. Yet many of my conservative friends have been reluctant to join me in supporting renewable technologies such as wind and solar. These and other advancements not only address dangerous greenhouse-gas emissions, but also are helping improve our economy with new jobs. Although natural gas and coal are both abundant in Pennsylvania, renewables must be part of the mix.

I should note here that the Ridge Policy Group, which I lead, lobbies on behalf of the Pennsylvania Conservative Energy Forum (PennCEF), an organization that seeks to build support on the right for wind and solar projects; our firm also has a nuclear-power company as a client. Any reasonable policy will require people across the political spectrum to recognize, first, that climate change is a serious problem and, second, that the United States, with its enormous appetite for energy, must harness all practical carbon-free sources. Convincing policy makers of both points at the same time is the key challenge, and not just in Pennsylvania.  

In a recent speech at a PennCEF event, I reminded the audience that the writer Rachel Carson, a Pennsylvania native, is largely attributed with jump-starting the modern environmental movement. The publication of her 1962 best-selling book, Silent Spring, was a watershed moment, raising awareness about the links between pollution and public health. The first-ever Earth Day started just eight years after her book was published.

During my governorship, I looked to Rachel Carson’s legacy as inspiration for policies we put into place that balanced economic growth with environmental stewardship. My fellow conservatives have a hard time recognizing that the two need not be mutually exclusive. When I came into office in 1995, our state’s Department of Environmental Protection was a nightmare—a heavy-handed agency that crushed jobs through regulatory excess. My administration eliminated red tape so that businesses could get necessary permits, but they were held accountable with appropriate oversight. We also implemented the Land Recycling Program, which to this day remains a national model for cleaning up and reusing contaminated parcels, and we won passage of Growing Greener, a $650 million initiative that was Pennsylvania’s largest-ever investment in the environment. That package was proposed by a Republican governor and passed by a Republican-controlled legislature. You’d be hard-pressed to see that happen today.

A wonderful adage says, “We do not inherit the earth from our ancestors; we borrow it from our children.” Earth Day, perhaps this year more than ever, reminds us that the air we breathe and the water we drink should never be taken for granted. And our political leaders—from both the left and the right—must take greater ownership on behalf of our children and their children.

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