Pennsylvania’s state legislature is divided for the first time in more than a decade, and its new Democratic governor is looking for common ground to govern with bipartisan support. One of his Republican predecessors found that common ground in the environment.
On the eve of what could be an especially contentious legislative session, we revisit our 2020 conversation with former governor Tom Ridge.
Governor Josh Shapiro gives his first budget address to the Pennsylvania General Assembly on March 7, kicking off what promises to be a contentious legislative session. For the first time since 2010, Democrats control the state House of Representatives by a razor-thin margin, while the GOP maintains its majority in the Senate. This year the two parties are expected to clash on everything from school funding to elections, as well as the perennial budget battles and confirmation hearings.
Governor Shapiro, a Democrat, says he’s committed to building bipartisan consensus. But with a divided legislature and an atmosphere that’s as polarized as ever, where’s the potential for common ground? Shapiro is not the first governor to grapple with that question.
“You know, when you share the same goals, regardless of the political registration, it is absolutely amazing what can be accomplished when people bring a desire to make a positive difference,” said former Pennsylvania governor Tom Ridge in a 2020 Pennsylvania Legacies interview. Ridge held the office from 1995 to 2001, presiding over historic bipartisan accomplishments on conservation, the environment, and outdoor recreation — all while enjoying high approval ratings as a two-term Republican governor and a self-identified conservative.
“I had the good fortune to work with… a Republican House and Senate who, at least at that time, understood the importance of preserving and enhancing the environment,” he said.
For years, Ridge has argued forcefully that partisanship has no proper place in debates over how best to uphold Pennsylvanians’ constitutional right to clean air, pure water, and a healthy environment. The argument has taken on new urgency in light of the growing threat posed by climate change, reinforced by Ridge’s experience as the first director (later Secretary) of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.
“You talk to the military, they’ll tell you that climate change – which they accept — they build doctrine around constant change in the environment and the inevitability of future change. They build doctrine, military doctrine around it!” he said. “So to all those in government who don’t pay any attention to it or ignore it, you ought to talk to the military. And if you don’t believe the scientists, believe those in charge of your safety and security globally. And if that can’t convince you, then I guess there’s no convincing. If the scientists and the military can’t do it, I don’t know who can.”
Pointing to public opinion research that shows overwhelming support for climate action among Pennsylvanians, including many Republicans, Ridge said the GOP should return to its roots as the party of Teddy Roosevelt (who established conservation as a national priority over a century ago), and of Richard Nixon (whose legacy includes the Clean Air Act and the Environmental Protection Agency).
“People, individual citizens, are becoming more and more cognizant of how perilous it is to continue down this path,” he said. “Citizens are just asking for reasonable, responsible change.”
Josh Raulerson: Governor Ridge, welcome to Pennsylvania Legacies. So happy to have you here.
Tom Ridge: Josh, it’s a great pleasure to join you and your audience. Thank you.
Josh Raulerson: You were governor in Pennsylvania at a time – you know, in some ways it doesn’t seem like that long ago, but in other ways, a million years ago – it was a less polarized time, less partisan time, I think it’s safe to say. Maybe you’d agree. How did we get here? How did specifically environmental issues become so political, so partisan?
Tom Ridge: You know, I wish I could say I have a good answer to that question. And I don’t have a good one. It just seems to me that of all the issues confronting this country, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania and the globe.. one would think that preserving and protecting and hopefully even enhancing and improving the environment within which we live, the water we consume, the air that we breathe… I mean, it’s endless, it’s a life-saving focus regarding the promotion and protection of the environment. So maybe one of these days, hopefully in the not-too-distant future, we get back to – particularly Republicans – get back to their legacy, which was strong environmental protection and enhancement.
You know, interestingly – I don’t mean to belabor the the question, but there was a survey done, an attitude survey done in Pennsylvania by [Clean Air Council] recently, in past week or two. It was 89 percent in Pennsylvania, 89 percent of Pennsylvanians said we’re really interested in improving the quality of our air. A huge number, almost two thirds, said “you know, we ought to be promoting sources of energy alternatives that don’t emit carbon.” So I think there’s a substantial foundation for dramatic – not revolutionary change, but dramatic change in policy.
Josh Raulerson: Those numbers are striking, but really they probably shouldn’t be. As you said, there is this long, proud conservative tradition in conservation going way back… As somebody who identifies as a conservative, as a Republican, you know, what is the conservative basis for being a supporter of environmental policy, being a steward of the environment? Where does that square with, you know, with your ideology, your way of looking at the world?
Tom Ridge: Well, I think you alluded to one. If we’re true to our tradition, and we do have a tradition, a legacy within the party, with Roosevelt — let’s not forget Nixon… let’s not forget the EPA, Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act – these are all Republican Party initiatives, by the way, embraced by people, regardless of how they’re registered. When the Cuyahoga water was on fire in the ‘60s outside of Cleveland, and people said “the answer to that pollution is not dilution. You don’t throw that junk in your Great Lakes, which happens to have 20 percent of the natural freshwater in the world. We’d better do something about it.”
So I think if I’m a conservative, I’ll also remind my colleagues, not only a legacy item, but we have an individual moral responsibility. Because if we’re going to hold each other responsible and accountable to at least preserve and protect, and I would argue even enhance it, and then if you want to take a look at the economic side and say to yourself, it has drastic implications for our economy. And if you want to look at the defense side, it is what the defense community call the threat multiplier. Climate conditions aggravate, exacerbate and create instability, whether it’s poverty, hunger, famine, etc., etc. that our military is called upon – let alone the operational challenges, rising sea levels and in operating in these environments mean to our soldiers and sailors – I’ll give you a long list. And if that can’t convince Republicans that they ought to be doing something more boldly than they have in the past couple years, I don’t think anything will.
Josh Raulerson: And you’re somebody who knows a thing or two about national defense… I am interested in where those two issues come together for you, I would like to talk about that a bit more. But you were talking about polling showing pro-environment sentiment [including] among people that normally vote Republican. We’ve seen a lot of these polls. This is not isolated, although you wouldn’t necessarily know it from following the news day-to-day. But, you know, the empirical data show that people that consider themselves Republicans, conservatives, care about the environment, care about clean air, care about the climate. Where do you see that rank and file sentiment, if at all, reflected at the leadership level within the Republican Party? What’s the dynamic internally there?
Tom Ridge: Oh, it seems to me, at least in D.C., you have too many people, in my mind, denying science. I mean, I didn’t do all that well in my science courses [but] it’s like, you accept what you know and look for those to inform and educate you on those things that you don’t know.
And it may not be universal, but I think it’s about 99 percent of scientists who take a look at the environment today, our air quality, and say, “while man is not the sole source of the challenges we have associated with clean air, it is clearly a significant, significant source and we ought to do something about it.” You can’t change where Mother Nature’s going, but you can change your personal and corporate, collective approach toward it. And it’s just… I don’t know how people can, in this day and age… It’s almost medieval to deny science! And I think it’s somewhat of a shameful proposition.
I think we’ll get back to it because I think there’s an emerging, a growing foundation of support within both parties. But you’re talking about the Republican Party… you better do something about this. You know, I’m reminded of that statement attributed to Native Americans: “you don’t inherit the earth from your ancestors, you borrow it from your children.” And if you just think about that in your own personal terms, about your kids and your grandkids and future generations, you say to yourself: how in God’s name can we continue to pollute the environment and feel good about the legacy we’re leaving our children? And you can’t feel good about the environment if you’re going to ignore all those scientific concerns that have been expressed by people who are apolitical. They’re concerned about the environment. Period.
Josh Raulerson: I think just about anybody will understand that intuitively, no matter where they are on the political spectrum. But somehow that doesn’t always translate at the policy level. Somehow it gets twisted in the discourse. What do you think we can do about that? How do we get past this sort of dichotomy, this partisan framing, and identify common ground where people can work together for a better, healthier environment regardless of what their other political beliefs may be?
Tom Ridge: Well, I think there are groups emerging that had preexisted and are now emerging in their communities and states and even nationally that are beginning to have a greater impact on the political environment. And I just think they have to sustain their commitment to this cause. And I think, frankly, at some point in time, they need to… And some are beginning to vote it. You know, ultimately, you can choose our leaders.
So, sustaining and raising the decibel level. Perhaps you see the growing trend of embracing this notion of cleaner air. It’s a rather dramatic change. If you take a look at the survey results over the past five or 10 years, people, individual citizens, are becoming more and more cognizant of how perilous it is to continue down this path. And they’re just asking… citizens are just asking for reasonable, responsible change. I mean, I’m an all-in person. You’re not going to get rid of coal right away and you’re not going to have… nuclear plants are being shut down over time (but I’m a big nuclear fan). So I’m saying let’s just be smart about promoting alternative sources of energy, and we’ll be happy 20 or 30 years from now that we did, because it would be a lot cleaner air.
And by the way, you take a look at some of the photographs taken during this COVID pandemic globally, where communities are shut down or maybe transportation shut down, and see the differences in the air quality over major urban areas. And you don’t have to be a scientist to say “I can put two and two together: we are humans are responsible for a lot of this.” And when we change our conduct, our air quality gets better.
Josh Raulerson: Let’s focus on climate. There is this frame, again, that there is some essential conflict between making progress on energy policy, say, and economic prosperity. And you’ve made the case pretty eloquently that, you know, we need to do these things regardless, right? For the sake of clean air, for the sake of the climate. But putting on your, I don’t know, economic development hat: can you make a case for innovating energy production, moving toward cleaner energy sources, decarbonizing our electricity sector… just based on economics, just based on the potential for, you know, innovating our economy, creating jobs, growing our tax base, all those kinds of things? Is there something there?
Tom Ridge: Yeah, I do think there’s something there. Because I think adverse climate conditions have an enormous economic impact. Look what drought will do to… has begun to do… impact on the central states with regard to agriculture. Look what severe weather does to agriculture. Look at just the broader economic impact of climate change, I think, on individual businesses. And again, I want to make the economic case. I also want to make the moral case. And I think the two go hand in hand. There is an economic impact – we have to realize it – in severe weather. There is an economic impact. How about medical impact? Can’t tell me that a lot of people aren’t suffering from lung disease and asthma, because it’s been demonstrated by science, because of polluted air. It’s in the agriculture. It’s an additional medical expense. And the list goes on and on and there.
But it’s also a moral imperative. We have a responsibility to future generations, and shame on us if we don’t accept it. And I think that is very much part of the Republican creed of individual responsibility, individual accountability. For me, it’s like borrowing, and a certain point in time where you just keep borrowing and borrowing instead of taxing. You’re just passing the cost of today’s government on to future generations. It’s irresponsible and shameful, and one could even argue immoral, to pass on the costs associated with an environment that you have denigrated, you have ignored, on to future generations. It’s not yours to abuse, it’s yours to use and then pass it on to your kids.
Josh Raulerson: When you look at Pennsylvania’s history as an energy producer, and where we’re at at this moment as we’re transitioning to a different kind of a future, different ways of using energy… where do you see opportunity for Pennsylvania to be a leader in that space again, the way we have in the past? Moving forward on energy and clean energy and climate?
Tom Ridge: I think if we just said to ourselves: we have multiple sources of energy, both clean and not-so-clean, in Pennsylvania. Let’s be proportionate in our support of alternative forms of energy. Period. I mean, I don’t think you select right now one over another. But with a growing desire in focus by individual citizens on clean air, it would be wise – not just politically – but just wise in terms of your stewardship, your guardianship as an elected official, and your responsibility, to take that approach. Period.
Josh Raulerson: I want to go back to something you raised earlier. You know, in Pennsylvania, we know you as former governor, former congressman. Outside of Pennsylvania, people are going to recognize your name from your time in the Bush administration and [Department of] Homeland Security. Where does that experience inform your views on the environment, on air quality, on climate? All the things you’ve been talking about – do those connect together? Did you get any insights from your time in Homeland Security that inform how you think about these things now?
Tom Ridge: Well, Josh, I wouldn’t say the insights were formed necessarily by the responsibility I had as DHS secretary. But interaction with the military community writ large over the years has had a much more direct impact on what I think about this. And you know, the military, D.O.D., has a quadrennial review. And in the past decade-plus they’ve talked about climate change as a threat multiplier. They talk about how climate change affects their ability to protect and defend the United States and its interests. They’ve talked about climate change and how it affects how their soldiers and sailors can operate in a new and different environment. They talk about climate change as being the source of instability around the globe. And social and economic instability leads to crisis and often crisis leads to regional instability, and sometimes Americans are pulled into that. They talk about how the melting of the Arctic has opened sea lanes, which means that again, the global trade and the challenges we have with some of our enemies – that’s a potential source of conflict as well.
So you talk to the military, they’ll tell you that climate change – which they accept, they build doctrine around constant change in the environment and the inevitability of future change, they build doctrine, military doctrine around it! So to all those in government who don’t pay any attention to it or ignore it, you ought to talk to the military. And if you don’t believe the scientists, believe those in charge of your safety and security globally. And if that can’t convince you, then I guess there’s no convincing. If the scientists and the military can’t do it, I don’t know who can.
Josh Raulerson: Well, when you look at this disconnect… what’s obvious to the military, what’s obvious to a lot of regular people, again, isn’t always reflected in policy. One of the fault lines where we see that is in the changing roles of state and federal government relative to one another in an environmental context, not just that context, but we see a trend of states partnering with each other, making regional compacts…
Tom Ridge: I like that! You know, I remember as governor, I like the regional compact approach toward a lot of different things. But I remember as governor working with Parris Glendening – by the way, a Democrat, from Maryland. You know, the Chesapeake Bay is a magnificent, just a very special place on the East Coast. And you know what? 50 percent of the water comes flowing through the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. And a lot of that, those rivers and tributaries, are exposed to drainage from farm lands. There’s non-point source pollution. And we worked together to make some changes so that what Pennsylvania poured into the Chesapeake Bay wasn’t contributing to an increase in algae and being disruptive to the environment. So you do sit down together and decide there are mutual interests, and how do you collaborate in order to advance the improvement of the environment in the region, not just in your own neighborhood? And again, I think that goes to the collective responsibility we have to enhance and improve the environment every opportunity we get. Whether you’re Republican or Democrat.
Josh Raulerson: Yeah. So we’ve seen that approach work in the past. We’ve seen the success. Where do you see the possibility going forward for states to work together on energy and climate, on the environment broadly?
Tom Ridge: Well, I think it’s a wonderful question, particularly as it relates to the crisis we’re dealing with now with COVID-19. You know, there are a lot of regional conversations going on between two or among multiple governors as to how you deal with this. And maybe there’s great lessons learned here that can be applied to other collective needs and collective responsibility. You know, when you share the same goals, regardless of the political registration, it is absolutely amazing what can be accomplished when people bring a desire to make a positive difference. And maybe it’s just incremental. But all we need is incremental changes. And after a decade or so, you see dramatic change. So I’d like to think that maybe this is a possibility for the same governors once we get through this pandemic to refocus on whatever they view together as regional environmental issues. I mean, I love the model with Parris Glendening, of our philosophy – he’s a good man, a good Democrat, we probably disagree on a lot of things, but we really enjoyed working together – because we knew we were advancing the common good of the many, many citizens of our states and those who visit the Chesapeake as well.
Josh Raulerson: So let’s bring it all back to Pennsylvania and these themes of leadership and cooperation and the moral, ethical responsibility of stewardship as it relates to your time as two-term governor of Pennsylvania, where you left your mark on the state and everything from trails and outdoor recreation, particularly through the special funds that you were instrumental in setting up, Growing Greener and the Keystone Fund, and the list goes on… I’m curious what you would point to as your legacy, the most important contributions you made as governor?
Tom Ridge: Well, you know, I think other people are responsible for determining what your legacy is – good, bad, or indifferent. And therefore, I look back, in response to your question, in gratitude. I had the good fortune to work with people like Jim Seif and John Oliver and the men and women of their respective agencies. And by the way, a Republican House and Senate who, at least at that time, understood the importance of preserving and enhancing the environment. So if nothing else, maybe it was the bridge, the glue, pulling together all those parts. They don’t have to be disparate parts. But I guess I take a look at it and say when you work together, you can just see the impact you have on the environment, the recycling, the Growing Greener. When we deregulated electricity, we discovered that there are actually some Pennsylvanians willing to pay more for electricity when their source did not generate carbon emissions. So you just take that focus and that commitment and you work together to improve the environment in your state. And I think we did a pretty good job and I’m proud of being part of it. Not responsible completely for it, but part of it. Maybe pulling together the right team to get it done – that might be the great legacy.
Josh Raulerson: I’ve got one more question for you as it relates to the work that we do at PEC. I know you are not just a proponent of outdoor recreation, I’m told you’re also an enthusiastic cyclist and somebody who likes to spend time outdoors. Can you talk about what those assets mean to you as a citizen, as somebody that partakes of trails and outdoor spaces and also as, you know, somebody that’s thinking about the Commonwealth, opportunities, and all the other things we’ve been talking about today?
Tom Ridge: One of the great, one of the many great privileges to serve as the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania’s governor: you think about the history and you go back to when we got the charter from the king [for] Penn’s Woods. And if you’re privileged as governor to drive through the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania or fly over the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania or traveled down the rivers of Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, you go fishing in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, you go with your friends and go hunting… and you really get a deep and profound sense of the gift, the natural gifts that we had nothing to do with. The good Lord put them there and we just happened to get the charter from the king, so it’s ours. And so I would just say that I think for me, in addition to multiple personal experiences, when you become a legislator – and I’m just focused on the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania – I don’t care whether you’re a Republican or Democrat – see what you’ve inherited. You didn’t create any of it. But damn it, it’s your responsibility to enhance and protect it because those who follow you want to enjoy the same gifts and the same bounty of nature that was given us several hundred years ago. So I just view it as implicit in your responsibility as a legislator, as a governor, as a cabinet member, to do all you can to enhance it.
Josh Raulerson: Well, Governor, I know you’ve got a busy day ahead of you, and I really appreciate the time you’re taking to talk with us today. Thank you so much for being on Pennsylvania Legacies. Stay healthy. Stay safe.
Tom Ridge: Well, listen, I’ve enjoyed doing this and hope we have a chance to do it again. God bless, take care.