Conservatives used to take environmental issues seriously. Despite the usual linking of environmental policy with the Left, in fact it was conservative Republican presidents who initiated some of the most ground-breaking environmental achievements: Richard Nixon established the Environmental Protection Agency in 1970; Ronald Reagan signed the Montreal Protocol to combat ozone depletion in 1987 (for a fine paper on how his Administration approached the issue, read this); and George Bush I began the widely-heralded cap-and-trade program for sulfur dioxide in 1990.
In addition, would-be-president John McCain was a strong supporter of cap-and-trade legislation for greenhouse gases until he was defeated by Obama and turned against it to please the party’s rightwing base. Cap-and-trade was the conservatives’ preferred environmental policy option because allowance trading maximizes efficiency and allows for flexible solutions to reduce pollution (in contrast to “command and control”). Even pollution taxes, now vilified by the Right, come from the core conservative economic position of internalizing externalities (commonly expressed as the “polluter pays” principle). Yale economist William Nordhaus has estimated that of all the ways to raise revenue to decrease the national debt, a greenhouse gas tax is the best policy option because it does a lot to decrease pollution but little to distort economic activity.
The fact that the Republican Party has turned against true conservative policies shows the extent to which it has become dominated by corporate-interest extremists. Nowhere is this more evident than in the corporate-sponsored “conservative” think tanks such as the American Enterprise Institute, The Heritage Foundation, and the Cato Institute. Rarely does a week goes by without a think tank report that reads like an industry wish list; the organizations have become repositories for second-rate thinkers who parrot the corporate line under the guise of intellectual credibility.
Their objective is to move the policy goalpost rightward, and they’ve succeeded with the willing assistance of the ever-quiescent traditional media. It should have been a huge news story when McCain and his GOP colleagues vilified cap-and-trade; only one year earlier, it had been part of McCain’s presidential platform. Instead we were treated to warnings of how cap and trade might be risky in an economic downturn (even though this is the best time to initiate it, since demand for energy is low).
On issue after issue, Republicans have opposed conservative ideas simply because Obama and the Democrats support them. A perfect example: reducing subsidies for fossil fuels, which run completely contrary to the basic conservative belief that industries, especially profitable ones, should compete in the marketplace without government support. Positions like this are the antithesis of McCain’s “country first” presidential run.
So I ask: when will the true conservatives stand up and support the sensible environmental policies that have been a mainstay of conservative thought for decades? It’s time for the adults in the conservative movement to speak out. The environment can’t wait any longer.
Jason Scorse’s book, What Environmentalists Need to Know About Economics, will be out October 26 and is available at Amazon.