When US Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell announced Friday the successful conservation of a threatened species — the little-known, unglamorous New England cottontail — it was the culmination of a bipartisan effort on the environment.
The plight of the rabbit was typical of threatened species in the United States: Deforestation and development led to the loss of about 80 percent of its natural habitat over the last 50 years. Maine put the cottontail under state protections, and the federal government decided in 2008 to officially consider listing it under the US Endangered Species Act. In the years since, government officials have worked with private land owners around New England to restore habitats and reintroduce the rabbits, according to the Press Herald of Portland, Maine.
The story of the rabbit's conservation is, according to those on the religious right and the liberal left, representative of common ground the political parties have found on environmental issues, which could lead to greater cooperation in the future, even on seemingly intractable battles such as climate change.
Following the announcement that the rabbit species' numbers had rebounded significantly in the past decade, a coalition of environmental religious groups including evangelicals, Catholics, Protestants, and Jews boasted of their support of conservation efforts and work in "protecting God's creation" — or, in the vernacular of the faith-based environmental movement, creation care.
Cassandra Carmichael, executive director of the National Religious Partnership for the Environment, said that although the religious right in this country is often portrayed as anti-environment, they represent the best chance of convincing Republican leaders to embrace environmental protections.
"I think in general the religious community cares very much. They might not refer to it as the environment, that's a word that has political meaning for some people, but when we talk about caring for creation I haven't come across a person of faith who said they didn't think we should care for God's creation," she said. "We look at species protection and conservation from the Noah's Ark story in the Bible. That's where we take our cues."
Rob Sisson, the director of ConservAmerica, a conservative environmental group urging the GOP to reclaim its historical roots as conservationists, agreed with Carmichael, noting that the religious base of the party, along with hunters, fishers, and residents of Western states where debates over public land management resonate strongly, may very well be the best hope for achieving environmental protections.
"The rank and file support of people who identify as conservatives is very strong for conservation policy, and I think it never really went away. I think the attention got diverted, and we weren't really paying attention, but now we're starting to realize our party has at best ignored conservation issues for last decade or more, and we need to pay attention to this. We were once undisputed champions of conservation," Sisson told VICE News.
He expressed hope that the visit of Pope Francis to the US at the end of September would result in news coverage and national discussion of the Pope's climate change encyclical, Laudato Si, that would help engage religious Republicans in more environmental issues.
"The general public, not the angry right or angry left, are taking notice and talking about it. People in pews around the country, in synagogues are talking about it, and I think after the Pope's visit at the end end of this month … I think we'll see it pop up in the public's mind pretty significantly," he said.
Sisson's prediction may already be coming true. On Tuesday, 10 House Republicans announced they would sign a resolution acknowledging that human activity contributes to climate change. Congressman Chris Gibson of New York, who led the formation of the group, told the National Journal the resolution was a "call for action to study how humans are impacting our environment and to look for consensus on areas where we can take action to mitigate the risks and balance our impacts."
The group consisted mainly of Republicans up for reelection in swing states, according to the Journal.
Gibson's office did not respond to a request for comment on the resolution.
Christine Parthemore, senior research and policy fellow at the Center for Climate and Security welcomed the announcement and called it a step toward "more meaningful, bipartisan dialogue on climate change."
"There are a number of security risks influenced by climate change for which the signatories can help develop strong policies and programs," she said. "Ripe areas for bipartisan Congressional leadership include more resilient military infrastructure, disaster relief capacity building at home, and with international partners, ensuring the Pentagon plans for climate change influencing the health of defense personnel around the world, and investing in defense energy programs that can mitigate both operational risks and harmful emissions."
While Sisson didn't expect any of the current crop of GOP presidential hopefuls to embrace environmentalism during the primary stage, Sisson said he had fielded calls from consultants and operatives of various campaigns asking about policy positions they might consider for the general election, which he sees as a hopeful sign for the party. He did not specify which candidates the individuals represented.
"Once the consulting class is exposed to that or understands voters are asking these questions that won't go away, that will quickly permeate campaigns," he said. "I think there are four or five [candidates] that have the same vision and share the Republican conservation legacy."
The way into environmental issues for the political right, Sisson and others pointed out, will likely not be climate change policy, but forest and species conservation, issues that appeal to both the religious and the "hook and bullet crowd," of hunters and fishers, said Drexel University environmental and sociology professor Robert Brulle.
When it comes to addressing climate change, the right's ideas are still too far from the left's to find common ground, Sisson said, citing their support for nuclear and natural gas energy as opposed to renewables.
The exact point of departure for Republicans on environmental issues is contested. For Sisson, it occurred around 2003, when the party decided to use doubt on climate change science among party members to rally voters. For Brulle it was earlier, in the 1990s, when the Republican party moved farther right with the leadership of Newt Gingrich and environmental issues became seen as too far left.
Brulle said he was suspicious of any claim that the Republican Party was moving toward a more conservationist approach, noting that their major policy positions have not changed and likely wouldn't, even if a broad base of Republicans support environmental policies, because the party's extreme wing drives much of the primary debate and early campaign contributions.
"You can have broad based support for environmental protections throughout the Republican community and religious community," he said, "but I want to know: Who is going to show up? What do the party activists say? And those are the people the folks in office have to answer to."
Karen Liftin, an environmental politics professor at the University of Washington, said that although Republicans "have made climate change the most divisive political issue on the agenda," if the Pope or others on the right can reframe discussions of the environment into more relatable, human terms, they will resonate with religious GOP voters.
"Climate change was at first framed as a science-based issue — and it should be — but you already have antipathy among the Christian community toward science," she said. "If climate change becomes more reframed as an ethical issue and a human issue rather than 'the environment,' people in general are more willing to respond to issues that have a human face than just, 'the atmosphere,' even though we all depend on the atmosphere. If it has a human face people respond more to it."
Since a majority of Americans believe in climate change, particularly young voters, the party will have to come around eventually, she said.
"If we're going to make it as a civilization there's going to have to be bipartisan cooperation. I see an inevitability of that but I don't know how far down the road we're going to have to get for that to happen," Liftin said.
On the Line: Robert S. Eshelman discusses climate change
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