This is a guest post from Aidan Braun, who was Frontier Group's 2020 summer intern.
Following the destructive policies and rhetoric of the previous administration, Joe Biden is now faced with the necessity of healing a divided nation. The country will not immediately unify under one cause or in one moment, but focusing on policies and issue areas of common interest can gradually begin to build trust between Americans.
In his inauguration speech, President Joe Biden spoke of the importance of repairing the damage done by the previous administration and of unifying a divided nation. Overcoming the COVID-19 pandemic, an economic recession and intensifying political polarization, Biden proclaimed, will require “that most elusive of things in a democracy: Unity. Unity.”
Coming just two weeks after a mob bent on reversing the results of the presidential election violently stormed the U.S. Capitol, Biden’s message of unity seems both vital, and at the same time impossibly optimistic. But while it may be unreasonable to expect perfect political harmony among Americans any time soon, the country should nonetheless begin to seek common ground outside of politics on which to build the foundation for greater unity within its political systems.
The one thread that connects all Americans, regardless of political affiliation, is the Earth: the natural environment that we all enjoy, and on which we all depend. There is a long and deep history of Americans uniting across party lines to protect the places we hold most dear, making conservation one of many issues on which our partisan divisions conceal real agreement among Americans Left and Right. If President Biden wants to begin healing divisions, bringing Americans together around the protection of our environment and our cherished natural places is a great way to start.
While we all depend on the Earth for life, those of us who actively participate in outdoor sports and frequently engage with the natural environment are more likely to fight for the planet that we enjoy. At least, this is the view of snowboarder Jeremy Jones, who in 2007 founded the nonprofit Protect Our Winters (POW), which calls on professional outdoor athletes to lobby the government at both state and federal levels for better energy policy and improved environmental conservation. Jones believes that there is immense power in America's outdoor athletes and casual weekend hikers. He refers to the more than 50 million outdoors enthusiasts in the U.S. as “The Outdoor State” – a block of voters from a wide variety of political and economic backgrounds, who are bound together by a shared passion for the outdoors.
Statistics seem to bear out Jones’ concept. According to the Outdoor Foundation’s Outdoor Participation Report, in 2016, an estimated 48.8% of Americans participated in at least one outdoor activity during the year. 52.3 million people went running or jogging; another 47.2 million went fishing; 42.1 million hiked and 40.5 million did some sort of camping, whether in their backyard or in the backcountry.
Regardless of whether they spend time outdoors or not, more than 75% of Americans say that they are concerned about the state of the environment. According to a Gallup study published in 2018, 62% of Americans believe that the government is doing too little to protect the environment. The same study showed that this sentiment is shared by almost a third of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents – and also, perhaps even more surprisingly, that almost 60% of Americans prioritize the environment over economic growth.
The Biden Administration can, and should, build on this public sentiment to cultivate greater unity through policy. It can be done, and the last few years have given us several examples of how meaningful, bipartisan environmental legislation can be passed at both the state and federal level. In July 2020, for example, both the House and Senate passed the Great American Outdoors Act with bipartisan support in both chambers. The act ensures that the Land and Water Conservation Fund will receive its annual $900 million in funding and also provides $9.5 billion for backlogged national park maintenance. Funding for public lands became an increasingly important topic in the summer of 2020 as parks were inundated with visitors hoping to escape the confines of lockdown orders. Then, in December, the bipartisan Energy Act of 2020 was signed into law as part of an omnibus spending bill. The act includes grants of $35 billion to the Department of Energy, including $1.5 billion for solar technology, as well as $1.7 billion for energy efficiency and weatherization projects and other environmental initiatives.
Bipartisan clean energy legislation has also cropped up at the state level. In Florida, a 2016 ballot measure to provide tax breaks for renewable energy projects, both commercial and residential, passed with 72.6% of the vote. Then in 2019 the South Carolina state legislature increased access to solar energy by passing the Energy Freedom Act, which passed through the House with unanimous support. The act aims to increase access to renewable energy sources and lays the groundwork for utility providers to establish community solar projects in economically disadvantaged regions of the state. Also in 2019, the Colorado legislature passed the Colorado Climate Action Plan. Although support for the bill was divided on party lines, public support for the bill is widespread. A survey conducted by Conservation Colorado, Western Resource Advocates, and Global Strategy Group, published in 2020, shows that citizens of Colorado support their leaders taking strong action on climate change at a margin of 61%-22%. In a collection of political swing suburbs, support sits even higher at 66%.
Focusing on bipartisan clean energy and environmental legislation will not, in itself, heal the deep fractures in American society. However, at a time when it seems there’s not a single issue on which both sides of the aisle agree, it is important to identify policy areas for potential collaboration and bipartisanship. As America attempts to unify, placing an emphasis on protecting our natural environment can serve as a common ground for all Americans.