Here’s what a conservative climate agenda would look like
You won’t be hearing anything about combatting climate change at the Republican National Convention, but it’s not for lack of conservative climate solutions. There are plenty of policies a free marketeer could embrace that would cut greenhouse gas emissions and eliminate market distortions at the same time.
Conservatives believe in reducing government intervention in the economy. But, as conservative law professor Jonathan Adler (no relation to the author) has explained, they also believe in protecting private property. In the conservative worldview, it’s appropriate for the government to prevent your neighbor from dumping pollution in your backyard, or force the neighbor to pay restitution if the dumping has already been done.
If you accept climate science, Adler writes, then you recognize that greenhouse gas emissions are a type of dangerous pollution and carbon emitters shouldn’t be allowed to freely dump it on the rest of us. It’s like toxic waste on everyone’s lawn.
True conservatives and libertarians also believe that the government should not be favoring certain industries or economic activities, so they should back repeal of all market-distorting subsidies for fossil fuels, agriculture, and sprawl.
Here are six small-government climate solutions that conservatives and Republicans should feel good about supporting:
• Impose a carbon tax. A number of prominent Republicans and conservative intellectuals support a carbon tax because it is the most efficient, least intrusive mechanism of correcting the market failure that allows carbon emitters to stick the rest of us with the cost of climate change. Proponents include George W. Bush’s chief economic advisor Greg Mankiw and Ronald Reagan’s Secretary of State George Shultz.
A carbon tax would remove the unfair advantage that fossil fuels currently enjoy — the implicit subsidy that results from all of us being left to deal with their mess. Conservatives don’t like taxes, of course, but they can support tax reforms that are “revenue neutral,” meaning that a new tax is offset by cutting taxes elsewhere.
In its 2007 Massachusetts v. EPA ruling, the Supreme Court found that the government must regulate carbon dioxide pollution, so doing nothing is literally not an option. A carbon tax is clearly more conservative and market-friendly than having EPA set carbon pollution limits, which is what the Obama administration chose to do after Congress refused to pass a bill that would put a price on carbon. Shrewd conservatives therefore suggest Democrats give up EPA’s regulatory authority over carbon if they want Republican votes for a carbon tax. “When I’ve participated in bipartisan groups, I’ve said you need to give me regulatory heads on pikes,” says Jeremy Carl, an energy policy expert at the Hoover Institution, a conservative think tank. “If you put those in a package with revenue-neutral carbon pricing, then you might get somewhere.”
• Repeal tax subsidies for fossil fuels. The tax code is riddled with provisions that promote inefficiency and favor politically connected industries. Leading Republicans including House Speaker Paul Ryan and every presidential candidate in the last few cycles have argued for cleaning up and simplifying the tax code. One great way to do so would be to eliminate the various tax breaks for fossil fuel producers, particularly for oil and gas, which currently cost taxpayers several billion dollars per year. Republican politicians, of course, often favor these gifts because fossil fuels are popular among their base and are dominant in the economies of many red states. But principled conservatives should favor getting rid of them. (And if they want to make sure the government isn’t left favoring wind and solar, they could schedule fossil-fuel and clean-energy tax credits to phase out simultaneously.)
• Eliminate farm subsidies. Farm subsidies are anti-capitalist and contribute to climate change by making carbon-intensive crop production artificially cheap. That leads to overproduction — taking land that could serve as a carbon sink and using it for energy-intensive agriculture instead. It also leads to carbon-heavy food consumption. Subsidized corn, for example, has its own large carbon footprint and it also makes feed for cattle much cheaper. That leads to cheaper meat, which leads to more meat consumption, which leads to higher greenhouse gas emissions. Conservative policy wonks are generally in favor of eliminating farm subsidies already. The problem, as always, is political: Republicans depend heavily on the votes of rural farm states.
• Get rid of the ethanol mandate. Requiring gasoline to contain ethanol, a biofuel made from corn, is supposed to reduce carbon emissions. But because it encourages excess corn growing, it arguably does more harm than good. With the Iowa caucuses dominating the early presidential race, ambitious politicians on both sides of the aisle have been reluctant to challenge ethanol. Past presidential candidates such as John McCain have flip-flopped to support ethanol. There are signs of improvement, though. This year, Ted Cruz backed a gradual phaseout of the mandate and still won Iowa. “When Ted Cruz ran against the ethanol mandate in Iowa, a lot of conservative intellectuals were thrilled,” says Carl.
• Increase the gas tax. America’s roads and bridges need a massive reinvestment and the money has to come from somewhere. Most conservatives are so averse to increased taxes and government spending that they won’t support a higher gas tax without some offsetting tax cut elsewhere, but that would defeat the whole point, which is raising revenue for infrastructure. So if conservatives don’t want our roads and bridges to collapse, they need to agree on a mechanism to pay for repairing and maintaining them. Raising the gas tax would do the job, and it would be in line with general conservative principles. Many conservatives support user fees as a way to fund government services, and the gas tax is essentially a user fee for those who drive on roads. A higher gas tax also has the climate-friendly side effect of discouraging gasoline consumption.
• Phase out the home mortgage interest tax deduction. True conservatives already favor this, because giving homeowners a tax break that renters don’t enjoy is a perfect example of government picking winners and losers. It distorts the housing market and encourages sprawl, pushing Americans toward buying newer, bigger houses in the suburbs instead of renting or renovating older homes in the city. “Pro-market folks support cutting it, and if it happens to have climate co-benefits, that’s welcome,” says Devin Hartman, a senior fellow for the R Street Institute, a center-right think tank. The political problem is that suburban and rural homeowners are a key Republican constituency. That’s why Republican demagogues such as Newt Gingrich defend the mortgage tax break and deride its opponents as elitists. In fact, the biggest beneficiaries of the tax break are rich people, who have the biggest mortgages.
Real-world politics stands in the way of virtually all of these policy solutions. Still, for conservatives who accept climate science, these are policy prescriptions they can embrace that would simultaneously make markets function more efficiently and help address the climate crisis.