How Progressives Misunderstand Much Conservative Skepticism of Climate Policy

In yesterday’s Washington Post, Bracken Hendricks of the Center for American Progress laments widespread conservative opposition to “government action on climate change.”  Responding to the threat posed by global warming should be a conservative cause, Hendricks argues, because a warmer world will breed bigger government.

Many conservatives say they oppose clean-energy policies because they want to keep government off our backs. But they have it exactly backward. Doing nothing will set our country on a course toward narrower choices for businesses and individuals, along with an expanded role for government. When catastrophe strikes – and yes, the science is quite solid that it will – it will be the feds who are left conducting triage.

My economic views are progressive, and I think government has an important role in tackling big problems. But I admire many cherished conservative values, from personal responsibility to thrift to accountability, and I worry that conservatives’ lock-step posture on climate change is seriously out of step with their professed priorities. A strong defense of our national interests, rigorous cost-benefit analysis, fiscal discipline and the ability to avoid unnecessary intrusions into personal liberty will all be seriously compromised in a world marked by climate change.

Failure to take decisive action against climate change is unconservative, Hendricks argues, because global warming presents such grave risks.

far from being conservative, the Republican stance on global warming shows a stunning appetite for risk. When faced with uncertainty and the possibility of costly outcomes, smart businessmen buy insurance, reduce their downside exposure and protect their assets.

Dan Farber finds the op-ed compelling.  I do not.   Unlike some conservatives, I believe global warming is a serious problem that merits a serious policy response (as I’ve blogged about at length), but I don’t find Hendricks’ arguments particularly persuasive.

Conservative action to proposed climate policies is driven by opposition to extensive government interference in the economy.  Cap and trade is a conservative bogeyman because it requires far-reaching regulatory authority over private economic activity and the imposition of a de facto tax on energy use.  Opposition to cap-and-trade is not the same as opposition to all climate measures.  As Senator Mitch McConnell noted in a recent interview, “nobody thinks it’s a bad idea to reduce carbon emissions.” But many do think it is a bad idea to allow EPA to regulate over one million sources of carbon emissions or adopt an expansive “cap-and-tax” scheme that will places tens of millions more taxpayer dollars under government control.

Furthermore, while “smart businessmen buy insurance,” they also pay attention to the relationship between their premiums and the expected value of their coverage.  Even when faced with potentially catastrophic risks, not all insurance policies are a good deal.  If a minimal risk reduction is tremendously expensive, the “smart businessman” will find another way to manage the risk, “reduce their downside exposure and protect their assets.”  Sometimes this means investing in prevention or purchasing insurance.  In other cases it means protecting assets by making them more resilient against potential threats or investing in contingencies.  That mandating dramatic near-term emission reductions is a more sensible or “conservative” risk management strategy than investing in technological innovation, exploring geoengineering, or preparing for adaptation is something to be shown, not blithely asserted.

Hendricks’ effort to scare conservatives into supporting big government now to avoid bigger government later rings particularly hollow.  Why is it that everything requires bigger government?  Climate change is a threat?  Extend government tentacles throughout the economy.  Climate change is already happening?  Ditto.  Adaptation is necessary?  More of the same.  Were climate change not happening at all, I suspect Hendricks would still endorse a substantial expansion in government power.

Admittedly some on the right are equally reflexive, assert government is never the answer, and go to lengths to deny climate change poses any threat whatsoever.  Yet there are also plenty of conservatives and libertarians who are deeply skeptical of government intervention, but are nonetheless  willing to believe global warming might be a problem.  It’s perfectly reasonable to believe that reducing greenhouse gas emissions does not require the enactment of monstrous, pork-laden, regulatory statutes like Waxman-Markey.  And it’s not at all clear that climate adaptation necessitates a massive expansion of government power.  In many areas, such as water, climate adaptation requires more reliance on markets, not less.  Climatopolis author Matthew Kahn also blogged here about how successful climate adaptation will be driven by market forces, not government planners.

I share Hendricks’ and Farber’s frustration that more conservatives don’t take climate change or other environmental concerns seriously.  But I also believe some of this is the environmentalist movement’s own doing.  If everything calls for the same big government solution, why does it matter what the problem is?  If progressives really believe climate change is an impending catastrophe — not just a problem worth addressing but a potential apocalypse — and seek to enlist conservatives to their cause, they should pursue consensus efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, including efforts to stimulate technological innovation or proposals for revenue-neutral carbon taxes (see, e.g., here, here and here).  Yet Hendricks’ colleagues at CAP excoriate any and all who deviate from the progressive climate orthodoxy or espouse anything short of dramatic government intervention throughout the economy.  Environmentalists will be more successful enlisting conservatives (and many moderates) to their cause once they become more focused on solutions, and less insistent on government control.