Meet the #EcoRight! In this series, we profile republicEn members across the country: conservatives, libertarians, and independent thinkers who recognize the seriousness of climate change and support pragmatic solutions.
Jeff Vanek is a human resources professional and a member of both the Oregon and Utah State Bar. Besides a law degree, he also has a Master’s in environmental science with an emphasis in sustainability. Combining his passion for people and conservation, Jeff is currently the Director of Human Resources at Utah’s Hogle Zoo.
When and why did you first start caring about climate change?
I have cared about our natural environment from the time I was a kid in elementary school. Although climate change wasn’t in the vernacular in the 1970s, its effects were beginning to be manifested in the environment. I just knew we needed to be treating our planet much better than we had been. I loved our natural environment and was concerned with what we were doing to it as a species. Fast forward to the present and I can see the damaging effects climate change is having on every living thing on this planet, be it flora or fauna—and that includes humans.
What worries you most about climate change?
We are creating such damaged ecosystems that we will no longer be able to enjoy the beauty and benefits of our natural world. We depend on clean water for life, pollinators for food production, and many natural resources for our existence. If we continue to contribute to their destruction through actions that exacerbate climate change, we will pay a steep price, both personally and globally. Everything is connected and affected by our actions. The point we need to remember is that we humans, unlike the other species we share the planet with, get a say in it all.
How well do you feel your conservative values mesh with climate action?
It strikes me as rather ironic that this question should be asked. It used to be that the Republican Party and conservatives were the party of the environment. It was under a Republican president that some of the most significant environmental protection laws were established in this country and events like Earth Day came into existence. We were the party of the environment, but we lost our way. It’s time to return to our heritage of environmental stewardship.
What is the biggest challenge you’ve faced with being a member of the EcoRight?
I get frustrated with being labeled as someone who doesn’t care about the environment because I have conservative values. Unfortunately, however, in spite of our environmental stewardship heritage, we are not the same party today. Conservatives have come to stand for environmental indifference at best, and hostility to the subject of climate change at worst. We need to change that perception with actions that speak otherwise.
What would you say to Republicans who still deny climate change is a problem?
We need to stop making climate change a political issue. Stop ignoring the science for the sake of ideology. Climate change doesn’t care about your political affiliation or your knowledge of science, it is a reality that is being observed and measured. In the end, we need everyone of every party working together on solutions because the effects of climate change don’t discriminate along party lines.
What could the GOP do to make climate action more appealing to the public? What needs to change within the party?
We need to start addressing the values we all hold; quality of life, family, security, enjoyment of our natural resources, justice, equity, freedom. There is so much we share with everyone regardless of our political leanings that these should be the things we are talking about instead of how we disagree. Our divisions do not lead to solutions, but our shared values will. Why can’t we be the ones to reach across the aisle? We care about people, we care about our environment, and we want a better world—just like everyone else. We have become too isolated from each other. We need to remember that we are Americans first, before whatever political affiliation we choose.
“I get frustrated with being labeled as someone who doesn’t care about the environment because I have conservative values.”
Who are some Republican leaders who you feel best represent the EcoRight?
Here in Utah we have two outstanding leaders, Senator Mitt Romney and Representative John Curtis.
Are you confident in America’s ability to fight climate using market solutions?
Yes, absolutely. When directed and properly incentivized, our markets have proven over and over again that they can produce innovative solutions to complex problems. Some might point out that it has been the markets that have put our planet in peril, with their current incentives to create disposable goods with little or no regard to the costs to our environment. It’s true that market incentives have not taken our environment into consideration in the past. It’s time to change that, and when we do, we will see amazing things happen. The market isn’t the problem. A free market is one of the most effective and powerful forces we have, and it will respond to the incentives placed upon it. We need to make sure we have created the right incentives.
What about this movement makes you feel optimistic for the future?
That there are people saying, “I am a conservative, and I care about climate change.” Everyone is needed, and that includes conservatives. When I was a kid and well on my way to becoming an environmentalist in a Republican household, there wasn’t a conflict. It was understood that our environment was valued and we had a responsibility to take care of it. We are all in this together, liberal, conservative, independent, or nonaffiliated. The planet doesn’t care about our political positions. It just responds to what we do to it—good or bad. I think people are beginning to understand that, regardless of where they may be on the political spectrum.
Anything else you’d like to share?
Climate change, conservation, and environmentalism are people issues. The planet and its ecosystems do just fine without people. But people are a part of this planet, and hopefully will be for a long time. We cannot forget that for the planet to thrive, people must also thrive. We are in an interdependent relationship. We must therefore find solutions that will benefit both people and the planet. It’s a discussion we need to be having.