Opinion | Why Republicans Turned Against the Environment

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By Paul Krugman

Opinion Columnist

In 1990 Congress passed an amendment to the Clean Air Act of 1970, among other things taking action against acid rain, urban smog and ozone.

The legislation was highly successful, greatly reducing pollution at far lower cost than business interest groups had predicted. I sometimes see people trying to use acid rain as an example of environmental alarmism — hey, it was a big issue in the 1980s, but now hardly anyone talks about it. But the reason we don’t talk about it is that policy largely solved the problem.

What’s really striking from today’s perspective, however, is the fact that the 1990 legislation passed Congress with overwhelming, bipartisan majorities. Among those voting Yea was a first-term senator from Kentucky named Mitch McConnell.

That was then. This is now: The Inflation Reduction Act — which, despite its name, is mainly a climate bill with a side helping of health reform — didn’t receive a single Republican vote. Now, the I.R.A. isn’t a leftist plan to insert Big Government into everyone’s lives: It doesn’t coerce Americans into going green; it relies on subsidies to promote low-emission technologies, probably creating many new jobs. So why the scorched-earth G.O.P. opposition?

The immediate answer is that the Republican Party has turned strongly anti-environmental over time. But why?

Surveys from the Pew Research Center show the widening partisan divide over environmental policy. In the 1990s self-identified Republicans and Democrats weren’t that different in their environmental views: Republicans were less likely than Democrats to say that we should do whatever it takes to protect the environment, more likely to say that environmental regulation hurts the economy, but the gaps were relatively modest.

Since then, however, these gaps have widened into chasms, and not in a symmetrical way: Democrats have become somewhat more supportive of environmental action, but Republicans have become much less supportive.

Most of the divergence is fairly recent, having taken place since around 2008. I can’t help pointing out that Republican belief that environmental protection hurts the economy soared precisely during the period when revolutionary technological progress in renewable energy was making emissions reductions cheaper than ever before.

Republican voters may be taking their cues from politicians and media figures. So why have conservative opinion leaders turned anti-environment?

It’s not about belief in free markets and opposition to government intervention. One of the most striking aspects of recent energy disputes is the extent to which Republicans have tried to use the power of the state to promote polluting energy sources even when the private sector prefers alternatives. The Trump administration tried, unsuccessfully, to force electric utilities to keep burning coal even when other power sources were cheaper. Currently, as The Times has reported, many Republican state treasurers are trying to punish banks and other companies seeking to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

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