How Much Should GOP Candidates Embrace Environmental Concerns?

The Environmental Protection Agency, a federal agency charged with regulating pollutants in the air, water and ground, has been harshly criticized by Republican presidential candidates. Will this criticism harm their support among politically conservative Christians?

While there is some common ground between the GOP candidates, there are distinct differences.

Congresswoman Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) and former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) would like to shut down the EPA, while Governor Rick Perry (Texas) would like to place a moratorium on new EPA regulations. Former Utah Governor Jon Huntsman, who criticized Perry for questioning the science behind human-caused global warming, said there should be a moratorium on new EPA regulations.

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Former Fed Chair and Atlanta businessman Herman Cain wants a commission of industry executives affected by EPA regulations to eliminate the regulations they do not like. Not surprisingly, Congressman Ron Paul (Texas) would let state and local governments regulate pollution.

However, former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney takes a more moderate stance, saying only that the EPA should not have the authority to regulate atmospheric carbon because Congress did not give it that authority when it created the EPA.

With jobs and the economy on the minds of many Americans, environmental regulations that hinder a company's profitability, or encourage a company to move to a country with fewer regulations, are, understandably, a concern.

The controversy over environmental regulations, however, needs to be separated into two categories.

On the one hand, the EPA regulates substances in the air, water and ground that are harmful to human beings. These regulations generally receive public support among both Republicans and Democrats.

Regulation of atmospheric carbon is more controversial. Unlike pollutants, carbon is not harmful to human beings. Carbon is in the air already and humans add carbon to the air, in the form of carbon dioxide (CO2), every time they exhale. The concern over carbon is due to the increasing amount being put into the atmosphere by burning fossil fuels (oil, natural gas and coal).

Many scientists believe that this increase in atmospheric carbon is causing the Earth to get warmer. Others take issue with this position arguing that the warming of the planet is due to a natural warming and cooling cycle, and that the planet has been in a warming phase since the end of the Little Ice Age around the mid-1800s.

Bachmann has said that global warming theories are a hoax and Rick Perry believes the question of whether humans cause global warming in undecided. Romney and Huntsman argue, on the other hand, that there is sufficient evidence that humans have caused global warming by putting more carbon in the atmosphere.

Congress did not give the EPA the authority to regulate atmospheric carbon. Instead, a controversial Supreme Court decision gave the EPA that authority. In a 5 to 4 decision, with the court split along liberal/conservative lines, the Supreme Court said that the EPA not only has the authority under the Clean Air Act, but must regulate carbon emissions in Massachusetts vs. EPA (2007).

Sometimes, when candidates speak about reigning in the authority of the EPA, therefore, they are referring to the EPA's authority to regulate atmospheric carbon.

An August 2010 poll conducted by Pew Research Center showed broad support, 81 percent, for tougher environmental laws and regulations. Democrats showed the most support, with 88 percent, but a large majority of Republicans, 73 percent, also favored stronger environmental regulations. There were some differences among religious groups, but support remained high. Seventy-three percent of white evangelicals, 85 percent of Catholics and 81 percent of white mainline Protestants supported stronger regulations.

In the same poll, however, when respondents were asked to name which issues were “very important” to them, 90 percent named the economy and 88 percent named jobs, but “environment” was named by only 57 percent of respondents. Ten other issues were deemed more important than the environment.

Additionally, in a June 2010 Pew Research Center poll, 52 percent of Republicans said it was more important to keep energy prices low than to protect the environment. Only 28 percent of Democrats gave the same answer.

In a poll conducted by Gallup in March of this year, 54 percent of Americans thought that concerns about the economy should given priority over the environment, “even if the environment suffers to some extent,” while 36 percent thought the environment should be given priority, “even at the risk of curbing economic growth.” This represented the widest margin in favor of economic growth since Gallup began asking the question in 1985. Among Republicans, the gap was even wider, with 74 percent favoring the economic growth and 19 percent favoring the environment.

Republican presidential candidates who criticize the EPA, therefore, may be speaking to concerns that the EPA has become a hindrance to economic growth by passing regulations that burden businesses and economic growth in favor of protecting the environment.

Many evangelical Christians, though, who comprise a large portion of the Republican base, have been strong advocates of environmental protection. In the 2004 document, “For the Health of the Nation,” the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE), which represents many evangelical denominations in America, advocates both a personal and governmental role in caring for the environment.

“Because clean air, pure water, and adequate resources are crucial to public health and civic order, government has an obligation to protect its citizens from the effects of environmental degradation …. We urge government to encourage fuel efficiency, reduce pollution, encourage sustainable use of natural resources, and provide for the proper care of wildlife and their natural habitats,” the document states.

In an interview with The Christian Post, Galen Carey, NAE Vice President of Government Relations, said, “evangelicals do, very much, take seriously our responsibility to protect God's creation. Part of that is the individual responsibility each of us has in the choices we make and how we live, but certainly there is also an important role for government in protecting citizens from environmental degradation. Things like clean air and clean water are issues that individuals can't control on their own, so we do need to have tough standards.”

“Particularly as pro-life Christians, we are concerned about pollution that leads to disease and death.” Carey added. Mercury emitted from coal plants is one of the substances that the EPA regulates, Carey said, because it causes birth defects in the unborn.

Tom McClusky, Senior Vice-President of FRC Action, an affiliate of the Family Research Council, believes, on the other hand, that criticism of the EPA will help Republican candidates. While the NAE represents evangelicals of many political persuasions, liberal and conservative, FRC represents politically conservative Christians of many religious persuasions, including Catholics, mainline Protestants, black Protestants, and evangelical Protestants.

“For a lot of conservative Christians,” McClusky said in an interview with The Christian Post, government regulation is looked at similar to government provision for the poor. “Everybody believes we need to be shepherds of our environment, just as we need to take care of our fellow man, but, with conservatives, we don't believe that abdicating that role to the federal government fulfills our role as Christians.”

“The EPA certainly serves a purpose,” McClusky added. McClusky is concerned, however, that the EPA has gone too far with the amount and types of regulation it has imposed. “I don't think any of the [Republican] candidates are going to feel any repercussions for arguing against some of these regulations, or at least a reigning in some of them,” McClusky said.

While Christians share a concern for the environment, how that concern translates into political support can vary. While some would like to see the EPA take a more active role, others see the EPA as another example of a bloated, wasteful and overreaching federal government. Political candidates would be wise to tread carefully, though, in speaking about environmental protection.

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