One underappreciated aspect of the failure of the Soviet Union is the way the regime obliterated the environment. The Chernobyl disaster, the poisoning of Lake Baikal, the drying-up of the Aral Sea — all evidence that the Soviets were extraordinarily cavalier when it came to protecting their environmental assets. This amounted to an economic and humanitarian catastrophe. Roughly 200,000 people had to be evacuated from the area surrounding Chernobyl, thousands more died, and a medium-size city had to be abandoned. The death of the Aral Sea crushed a large and thriving fishing industry.
The lesson is that environmental protection is not only about preserving national parks and endangered species (very worthy goals in themselves, to be clear). It's also about protecting human beings.
One group that doesn't seem to appreciate this reality is the Republican Party, whose environmental agenda is basically an anti-hippie primal scream. It's awful policy, but it also raises a political question: What happens if Republicans win the Senate in the midterm elections?
First, let's look at what Republicans in the House have passed. The National Resources Defense Council has been tallying up the riders and amendments, and the proposed changes range from the demagogic to the bizarre. Here's just a sample out of dozens:
Prevent the EPA from calculating how much damage carbon pollution does to society
Stop the EPA from clarifying which streams and wetlands are protected by the Clean Water Act
Block EPA regulation of carbon pollution altogether
Ban the Fish & Wildlife Service from installing photovoltaic arrays
As a policy platform, this is downright dangerous, to say the least. Banning the regulation of carbon pollution — the only government action on deck to roll back climate change — quite literally threatens the territorial integrity of the nation. Just this week alone, three important reports — in Medium, Reuters, and ProPublica — showed that rising sea levels are eroding the American coastline. A higher ocean means either drowned coastal cities or billions spent on seawalls.
Furthermore, sharply limiting the Clean Water Act is staggeringly irresponsible in a year that has already seen two major contaminations of drinking water.
As always with Republicans, it's hard to know how many of these amendments represent considered policy goals of the party, as opposed to symbolic anti-liberal demonstrations by right-wing extremists. House Republicans have voted to repeal ObamaCare more than 50 times, but the party leadership would likely be less inclined to push through a full repeal, given the amount of outrage that would greet such a move — not among the uninsured, which the GOP has proved it doesn't care about, but among insurance companies and hospitals.
Still, there aren't many rich and powerful interests on the side of not poisoning the citizenry. The party leadership is barely less extreme than the rank-and-file, and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has pledged to go through with a vote to repeal ObamaCare if Republicans win the Senate. Furthermore, legislation could easily spin out of the leadership's control, as it has done repeatedly in the past.
Democrats have already amended the Senate filibuster to allow up-or-down votes on judicial and executive appointments. If Republicans take the Senate, they certainly won't have 60 votes, which means there will be enormous pressure on the leadership to scrap the filibuster altogether to send President Obama a foot-thick stack of ObamaCare repeals — and some anti-EPA bills along the way.
All of this would be pointless, since Obama will still be in the White House with his veto stamp. But it would put the GOP-controlled Congress on record when it comes to environmental issues — a frightening testament to what would happen if the Republican Party were in charge of both the legislative and executive.
Therein lies the political danger for the GOP. And therein also lies the actual danger if Republicans manage to take the White House, at which point you might want to stock up on water purifiers and dust masks.