TAMPA, Fla. -- Rob Sisson is tired of seeing environmentalism being dismissed by Republicans. In a party that recently adopted the slogan "drill baby, drill" he's a bit of an odd duck. But he's prodding the party to take environmental issues seriously.
"The anti-science rhetoric that portions of our party spout is turning off a lot of the younger college kids who haven't identified with a party yet," says Sisson, who is attending the Republican National Convention in Tampa.
"There's a real hesitancy from Republicans to step out and say, 'we need to have a discussion on this or we're going to get left behind and have solutions from the left that we don't like,'" he says. "Unfortunately... there's not enough money playing in Republican circles to backup Republican office holders that want to have that discussion."
The president of ConservAmerica, Sisson grew up in southwest Michigan and his family vacations usually involved camping, hunting and fishing. In college, he identified as a Republican and embarked on a banking career. In 1997, the birth of twin boys "woke up the inner environmentalist about what kind of world am I going to leave my sons."
He joined a group called Republicans for Environmental Protection, which became the precursor to ConservAmerica. After retiring early from banking, he joined the group on staff and eventually became its president. Though he won't give membership numbers, Sisson says there are chapters in all 50 states. There's a strong pro-life contingency, which wants to protect all forms of life. Many outdoorsmen and young Republicans also belong.
While many people are familiar with the conservatism of Teddy Roosevelt, Sisson says there are even more recent examples of environmentalism within the party, including Republican icon Ronald Reagan.
"Cap-and-trade was developed by the Reagan administration," he says, noting it was used to battle acid rain. "They ran out of time before they could deploy that." But the first President Bush did employ it, and it was very successful in stopping the problem. "It cost only a fraction of what the Chamber of Commerce predicted it would cost, and it coincided with one of the fastest-growing economies we ever had."
While many Republicans and commentators in the conservative media dismiss global warming as a leftist conspiracy, Sisson says that's not in line even with what most Republicans think. "Up in the 60% range of Republicans believe that climate change is real and needs to be addressed," Sisson says. "What we have is a leadership void, to even open a conversation on the right side of the political conversation. That's driven by money in politics."
He's trying to start a PAC to support Republicans who are willing to discuss global warming. How might conservative approaches differ from liberal ones? Sisson suggests taxes, applied in a conservative way, could help.
"Let's tax things we don't want, let's assign the true tax of things," he says. "Let's not tax things we want more of, like income. Do a carbon tax and then you send the money back to taxpayers. Every month they get a check. The taxpayers can use that to offset their other taxes or they can use it to purchase things."
Eliminating subsidies would also help. "Another very conservative thing we could do immediately is just level the playing field," he says. "The RNC platform targets incentives we've given to clean energy. Well, that's just a fraction of the incentives we give to coal and oil.... If we just eliminated subsidies across the field, that would help all energy forms compete equally."
Listen to Sisson discuss these ideas.
Sisson confesses he's "not happy" with the environmental aspects of the Romney-Ryan platform. The party has proposed allowing governors to oversee exploration of energy exploration in their state's public land. "We think that's a horrible idea," he says. "Public lands are the birthright of every American. We're supposed to manage those for the future generations of Americans."
But, he adds, he understands that the party needs to focus on jobs at the moment. And he is confident Romney and Ryan are smart enough to pay attention to environmental issues.
He says that Romney, when governor of Massachusetts, "was fabulous on conservation and environmental protection issues. Both he and Rep. Ryan are very intelligent, bright guys that analyze data. I think they'll make the right decisions because of that."
Joe Tarr is in Tampa with reporters from WORT 89.9 FM covering the Republican National Convention and will move on to Charlotte to cover the Democratic National Convention.