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'Reform conservatism' is not enough reform on global warming

Posted on 2 July 2014 by dana1981

The conservative YG Network recently published a series of ‘reform conservative’ essays called ‘Room to Grow,’ designed to create a ‘thriving middle class’ while limiting the size of government. Those essays have been subject to intense criticism from Vox’s Matt Yglesias and New York Magazine’s Jonathan Chait for failing to even mention climate change despite devoting a chapter to energy policies. Adam White, author of that energy policy chapter, pushed back by arguing,

There's no shortage of talk about climate change—its causes, its dangers, and the challenges and costs of regulating it.

Unfortunately, in terms of conservative climate policies, that’s not an accurate statement. When it comes to global warming, today’s conservative American policymakers most often deny the scientific evidence that climate change is a problem to begin with. When discussions are able to move beyond the stage of science denial, conservative policymakers will generally assert – without any supporting evidence – that climate policies will kill jobs and cripple the economy. In reality, studies have shown that the opposite is true: smart climate policies can have minimal economic impact and even grow the economy.

Cap and trade was invented by Republicans as a free market alternative to government regulation of pollutants. The more popular proposal today is a revenue neutral carbon tax; another free market solution that also doesn’t increase the size of government, because 100% of the revenue generated is returned to taxpayers via monthly refund checks. This proposal has support among conservative economists and some other influential Republicans, but not among Republican policymakers.

When was the last time you remember reading or hearing a Republican wonk or policymaker discuss the best policy response to global warming? As Yglesias and Chait pointed out, a series of ‘reform conservative’ essays would have been a great place to begin to remedy the lack of conservative contributions to the climate policy discussion, but none was to be found in ‘Room to Grow.’

In defense of the essays, in The New York Times, Ross Douthat pointed out that recently,

Ramesh Ponnuru and Reihan Salam, reformocons both, were devoting their columns to the issue

However, Ponnuru’s column was devoted to attacking President Obama for allowing the Environmental Protection Agency to do its legally-mandated job by regulating greenhouse gas emission from power plants. Aside from noting that the cap and trade legislation killed by a Republican filibuster in 2010 “probably had a better cost-benefit ratio than today's regulations do,” Ponnuru didn’t even discuss any policy alternatives.

Salam at least discussed his objections to existing cap and trade systems, but his piece exhibited a fundamental misunderstanding of the economic concepts involved, saying,

what artificial pricing really does is encourage investment in expensive technologies that couldn’t survive without an artificial leg up

That’s completely backwards. The purpose of putting a price on carbon pollution is to reflect energy technologies’ true full costs in their market prices. Right now fossil fuels have artificially low prices because industries are allowed to pump endless amounts of carbon pollution into the atmosphere for free, forcing the rest of us to pay for those costs through the damages they cause via climate change. Putting a price on that carbon pollution evens out the playing field such that the prices of various energy sources reflect their actual costs.

Ultimately both Ponnuru and Salam suggest that we should instead take a “technology first approach,” which essentially boils down to crossing our fingers and hoping that technological breakthroughs by themselves will achieve sufficient emissions cuts. Given the scope of the climate problem we face, that’s not a remotely sufficient or serious policy position.

In his piece, Ross Douthat also said that he doesn’t support carbon pricing proposals because he believes the costs of such a system will exceed the benefits. To support this belief, Douthat referred to articles written by Jim Manzi, who’s a software entrepreneur with a background in math, not economics. Manzi in turn supports his argument with references to the work of climate economist William Nordhaus. Now we’re finally getting to a credible source with supporting research and evidence!

The problem is that Nordhaus’ work unambiguously concludes that we should put a price on carbon pollution – 180 degrees from Douthat’s argument. In fact, Nordhaus got so sick of his work being misrepresented in the way Manzi and Douthat have done that in 2012 he wrote an article bluntly titled Why the Global Warming Skeptics Are Wrong. Nordhaus wrote (emphasis added),

My research shows that there are indeed substantial net benefits from acting now rather than waiting fifty years. A look at Table 5-1 in my study A Question of Balance (2008) shows that the cost of waiting fifty years to begin reducing CO2 emissions is $2.3 trillion in 2005 prices. If we bring that number to today’s economy and prices, the loss from waiting is $4.1 trillion. Wars have been started over smaller sums.

My study is just one of many economic studies showing that economic efficiency would point to the need to reduce CO2 and other greenhouse gas emissions right now, and not to wait for a half-century. Waiting is not only economically costly, but will also make the transition much more costly when it eventually takes place. Current economic studies also suggest that the most efficient policy is to raise the cost of CO2 emissions substantially, either through cap-and-trade or carbon taxes, to provide appropriate incentives for businesses and households to move to low-carbon activities.

The silver lining is that some of these ‘reform conservatives’ like Douthat seem to at least accept basic climate science. That’s a start.

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Comments 1 to 2:

  1. re: "... technological breakthroughs .... not a remotely sufficient ..."

    Not sure about that. While I second the general notion that a lot of effort on other fields should have been in effect by now and being as frustrated as anybody else that there is not even something to come in sight, technological improvements have their valuable place - everywhere. Better batteries, better power lines, better power plants, better insulation, better anything will sure help.

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  2. I agree with the concerns about hoping for technological breakthroughs. The breakthroughs that have developed significantly in the current socioeconomic system have been "popular or profitable". And there has been little need to be concerned about the decency of what is popular or profitable. In fact, the most damaging activity that can be gotten away with wins the competion for profit and can easily win the battle for popularity among a population focused on maximum personal benefit.

    A socioeconomic breakthrough is needed to end the pretend game of claiming that a current generation's desires can be weighed against the future problems that will be created. The other breakthrough needed is to end the belief that something that is popular or profitable must be acceptable.

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