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Alex Flint

Why US Republicans are waking up to the threat of climate change

U.S. conservatives now agree that the U.S. needs a climate policy. An effective policy should embody conservative principles, which, unlike liberal proposals, including the Green New Deal which exploits climate change to transform society, hold the promise of effectively reducing the risk of climate change at the lowest cost. This is why Republican policymakers are reengaged. Our country’s future and the prosperity of generations to come, depends on it.

In the United States, conservative leaders are credited with some of our Nation’s greatest environmental achievements. Teddy Roosevelt founded our national parks system, and Richard Nixon established the Environmental Protection Agency and enacted the Clean Air Act — which was significantly strengthened by George H. Bush in 1990. Environmental stewardship has been one of our party’s core values.

And then we lost our way, and, for about two decades, the Republican party tolerated and supported climate change deniers.

Those decades were not our best, and our return to full standing among those committed to addressing climate change is not yet complete.

In my party’s lost decades, Democrats led the U.S. climate conversation. They devised our climate goals and selected our policy approaches, largely a set of regulations and subsidies implemented without the benefit of climate legislation because our Congress has been mostly deadlocked on climate change since the Senate rejected the Kyoto Protocol 95-0 in 1997. Because Democrats were the only party at the table, conservative values were simply absent from the U.S.’s effort to address climate change.

For a number of reasons—overwhelming evidence of climate change, growing economic consequences, and increasing desire by corporate America to be socially responsible—Republican policymakers are re-entering the U.S. climate conversation, some striving to reclaim our reputation as environmental stewards. And they are regaining the trust of their constituents concerned about climate change, which has elevated more conservative voices on the issue.

But Democrats are still the noisiest in the U.S. calling for climate policies, and many of them think their best strategy is to steer even further left and to go it alone, or without Republicans. Democrats’ latest effort is the “Green New Deal,” a climate proposal with the goal of a zero-carbon electricity grid in 10 years as well as a myriad of provisions that are tangential, at best, to climate goals. It touts guaranteed wage rates, family and medical leave, paid vacations, and universal healthcare, just to name a few, at an estimated cost of $51 to 93 trillion over ten years—an exorbitant expense for a government with a current debt of $27 trillion.

In fairness, the cost estimate is dubious because Green New Deal policies have never been sufficiently defined to be seriously considered by U.S. policymakers. But, more importantly, the proposal represents an effort to leverage conservatives’ poor positioning (or lack thereof) on climate change to advance a broader, liberal agenda and to continue to politicize the issue.

For some Republican policymakers, the alternative to liberal policies has been to embrace fewer regulations and fewer subsidies than their Democrat colleagues. But that is most likely a transitory phase that is the result of two decades of liberals setting the terms of the U.S. climate discussion.

Among many conservatives, myself included, the truly conservative response to the threat of climate change is to price the negative externality of energy production by imposing a carbon tax. Rather than a myriad of easily manipulated regulations and/or unaffordable subsidies, assigning a cost to carbon pollution would bring the power of the world’s largest market to bear on one of the world’s largest problems. The result would be both environmentally and economically beneficial.

A carbon tax is not yet a popular approach in the U.S., at least not among policymakers and constituents of either party. The U.S. traces its origins to a tax revolt in the Boston harbor in 1773, so politicians, especially Republicans, are reluctant to call for more taxes. But economists generally agree that taxes are more efficient than regulations in reducing carbon pollution, and we will eventually face a choice: Should we drive needed change through an efficient tax or inefficient regulations?

The determining factor may be the growing need to address the U.S.’s fiscal condition. Mounting U.S. federal deficits, especially due to pandemic-related stimulus spending, is forcing a quiet but thoughtful discussion about tax policy. Based on current forecasts of climate change and fiscal issues, pressure to address both are on course to converge in the coming years and, if not addressed, could be catastrophic.

As those two pressures converge, another is emerging and may be the spark that ignites carbon pricing in the U.S.: the European Union’s commitment to a carbon border adjustment by 2023. Trade is an issue of particular importance to U.S. policymakers and one area in which the U.S. president has unusual authority. The EU’s action has the potential to trigger pressure from U.S. industry for a reciprocal U.S. carbon border adjustment and a broader carbon emissions policy.

Most importantly, because of science, economics, and politics, U.S. conservatives now agree that the U.S. needs a climate policy. An effective policy should embody conservative principles, which, unlike liberal proposals, including the Green New Deal which exploits climate change to transform society, hold the promise of effectively reducing the risk of climate change at the lowest cost. This is why Republican policymakers are reengaged. Our country’s future and the prosperity of generations to come, depends on it.

Conservatives in the U.S. are back at the table. That noise you hear is our chairs scooting forward.