Adler: Conservatives and climate change
President Donald Trump’s formal announcement this week that the United States will withdraw from the Paris climate accord was the administration’s latest effort to undo the climate polices of President Barack Obama. During his time in office, the president has also rolled back the Clean Power Plan and other regulatory controls on greenhouse gas emissions.
Those actions all potentially were warranted. Neither the Clean Power Plan nor the Paris agreement would have done much to forestall climate change. Neither was capable of producing sufficient emission reductions nor doing much to expand carbon-free energy here and abroad.
The problem is that the administration — and Republicans generally — haven’t come up with an alternative approach.
As a conservative, I was heartened by Trump’s proclamation over the summer that environmental protection was a “top priority” of his administration. I had hoped that declaration would be the start of a robust conversation about a conservative approach to the very real threat of climate change. It was not.
Republicans know what environmental regulations to oppose, but they have a hard time identifying positive environmental policies to support. Nowhere is this more evident than with climate change.
Meaningful climate mitigation requires stabilizing (and eventually reducing) atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases. This, in turn, requires a dramatic transformation of the energy economy, both here and abroad. The type of technological transformation necessary for this feat is similar to that which we saw in telecommunications, as resource-intensive technologies, such as copper wire, were replaced first by fiber optics and eventually by spectrum. The economy’s decarbonization efforts must match this sort of transformation.
Traditional environmental policy tools, such as regulatory mandates and directed subsidies for favored technologies, are a poor fit for the climate challenge. Federal agencies cannot simply mandate the development of technologies necessary for such a transformation. What the government can do is create a legal and economic environment in which such technologies are more likely to emerge and be deployed — and they can do so in ways that are entirely consistent with traditional conservative commitments to free enterprise and limited constitutional government.
Key to any successful climate policy will be enhancing incentives for low-carbon innovation, without trying to pick winners and losers, while simultaneously removing barriers to their development and deployment. Transferring federal research and development funds away from grants and toward innovation prizes would enhance the incentives for innovation, as would the imposition of a revenue-neutral carbon tax. Taxing the carbon content of fuels would provide a powerful signal to would-be innovators and existing firms that reductions in carbon-intensity will pay dividends. Rebating the revenues to taxpayers would simultaneously offset the economic consequences of the tax while also mitigating the burdens it could impose on the poor.
Another important step is undoing regulatory measures that hamstring our ability to develop and deploy low-carbon technologies. Take the case of wind power. Offshore wind development has faced a regulatory gantlet similar to (and sometimes worse than) that faced by offshore oil platforms — a sure way to stall forward-looking projects and chill needed investment. NIMBY efforts have also choked the deployment of wind farms on land. Conservatives should recognize that new technologies and nascent industries are particularly vulnerable to regulatory burdens and move to reduce those barriers.