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The Dartmouth
May 27, 2024 | Latest Issue
The Dartmouth

Muller: Climate Change Doesn’t Care About Your Political Party

Jean Charest’s talk on conservative environmentalism highlights the need for bipartisanship in addressing the climate crisis.

When I told a few friends I was planning on attending former Québec premier Jean Charest’s talk on conservative environmentalism at the Rockefeller Center for Public Policy, I was met with laughter and scoffs. At first, they thought I was joking, but their amusement turned to confusion once they realized I was serious. I view Dartmouth as an overall left-leaning campus, and my friends and I generally fit this category; their aversion to a conservative-leaning lecture made sense. Nevertheless, environmental conservation is decidedly a bipartisan agenda item. Political affiliation shouldn’t complicate what is quite literally a life-or-death situation, and only once we reconcile our opposing ideologies and recognize the value in each side’s approach can we begin to develop an effective solution to climate change.

Charest was Canada’s minister of the environment in the 1990s before serving as premier of Québec from 2003 to 2012. As a former member of the Progressive Conservative Party of Canada, Charest provided valuable insight into conservative policy rationale. He began his speech by remarking on former Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney’s adamant endorsement of environmentalism, arguing that Mulroney’s administration laid the groundwork for a host of effective domestic and international environmental policies — from establishing the ​​International Institute for Sustainable Development in 1990 to negotiating the Acid Rain Treaty in 1991. In his speech, Charest reconciled the conservative value of economic prosperity with the bipartisan duty to protect the environment. He noted that Mulroney — whom he served under as minister of the environment — worked in the resource sector and understood that a “threat to our natural resources is a threat to the economy.”

As an environmentalist, I often grapple with the relationship between our economy and the environment. Capitalism is an imperfect and often unfair system, yet many credit it with greatly reducing global poverty and improving living standards. It also, however, exploits our natural resources and leaves disastrous consequences in its wake. Charest acknowledged these facts and insisted that the goal of environmental policy should be mitigating, not preventing, the effects of climate change. He cited, as examples of successful mitigation efforts, cobalt and nickel mines used to create electric car batteries. Even solutions meant to reduce carbon emissions — like electric vehicles — still take some toll on our natural resources, so we ought to mitigate these impacts rather than eliminate them completely, Charest argued. 

Rather than view economic growth as contradictory to environmentalism, liberals should take a page out of the conservative playbook and recognize the potential symbiosis between the two. Charest emphasized the importance of using “well-designed economic instruments” to combat climate change. He cited the Canada-United States Air Quality Agreement of 1991, which was the result of meetings between Mulroney and President Ronald Reagan. The agreement committed both countries to reducing air pollution that caused acid rain, ozone depletion and other health-related consequences. Charest noted that under President George H. W. Bush, the United States amended the Clean Air Act of 1970 — which itself was passed by a conservative president, Richard Nixon — to meet the reduction goals in the 1991 agreement, employing market-based principles such as trade stocks in emissions reductions. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, the Clean Air Act has reduced emissions of the six principal air pollutants by more than 41% while increasing the national GDP by 64% since 1990. A hallmark of conservative environmentalism, this policy highlights how a win for the environment can be a win for the economy.

Charest also emphasized that Canada, under Mulroney’s conservative administration, distinguished itself as a global leader in environmentalism. In 1992, at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, Canada was one of the first countries to sign onto the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change and to ratify the Convention on Biological Diversity. Charest explained that Mulroney’s administration recognized the futility of a “one size fits all” approach to sustainable development. Charest instead emphasized both the different schedules for developed and developing countries to implement climate solutions and the duty of developed countries to devote financial and technological resources to those unable to afford expensive climate change policies.

As I listened to example after example of successful environmental policy initiated by conservative administrations, I became increasingly confused and frustrated at our nation’s recent refusal to approach environmentalism in a bipartisan fashion. Our political climate has become polarized to the point where cooperation between liberals and conservatives is increasingly difficult to conceptualize, and this polarization comes at the cost of practical policy. It was refreshing to attend an event sponsored by the American Conservation Coalition and listen to a conservative politician speak on a topic that is important to me.

If we hope to stave off the doomsday-esque impacts of climate change, policymakers and ordinary people must recognize the value of opposing ideologies. In this case, I call on liberals not to wave off conservative policy without first considering it from an unbiased view. Charest and his work are proof of conservative environmentalism’s merit and the fact that effective environmental policy can originate from any party.

Correction Appended (April 16, 9:56 AM): A previous version of this article stated that the event was sponsored by the "American Conservative Coalition." The correct sponsor was the "American Conservation Coalition." The article has been updated. 

Opinion articles represent the views of their author(s), which are not necessarily those of The Dartmouth.