How Not to Convince Republicans to Address Climate Change

It’s fair to say that only one political party today considers climate change to be a problem worth addressing. As readers know, I wish it were otherwise and believe there is a conservative case for addressing climate change.  I welcome others to this cause. This NYT op-ed, “A Republican Case for Climate Action,” is not the sort of thing that will help.  The article is by four former EPA Administrators who served in Republican Administrations: William Ruckelshaus, Lee Thomas, William Reilly, and Christine Todd Whitman.  Neither the message nor the messengers are likely to have much influence with a Republican audience.   It’s a case study of how not to try and influence people with differing political priorities.

Let’s start with the authors. Yes, all four served Republican Presidents, but none are known as Republican leaders or are particularly influential in Republican circles. Indeed, it’s not clear they should all even be identified as Republicans. Whitman may still give money to liberal Republicans, but her co-authors are regular contributors to Democratic campaigns. Reilly, for instance, may have given a primary contribution to Mitt Romney in 2011, but according to OpenSecrets.org the remainder of his recent political contributions have all gone to Democrats, including Elizabeth Warren (who, one should recall, was running against one of the more liberal GOP Senators). Thomas and Ruckelshaus appear to give to both sides. However one wishes to characterize these four, it would not be as “respected GOP leaders” and they are not likely to carry much weight in politically active GOP circles.

Then there’s the substance of the argument, little of which is responsive to Republican concerns about the size of government or cost and intrusiveness of federal regulation. The four suggest that a carbon tax would be a relatively efficient way to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and encourage technological innovation. They’re right about this. They then suggest that a carbon tax is politically infeasible — a reasonable, if debatable, proposition.  But rather than make the case for some sort of alternative to the current Administration’s policies, they suggest Republican leaders should endorse the EPA’s imposition of greenhouse gas controls under the Clean Air Act. Really? There are few, if any, climate experts who believe the Clean Air Act is well-suited to GHG emission control. This is one reason both the Obama Administration and Congressional Democrats sought new climate legislation. The CAA is capable of imposing substantial costs on emitters, but cannot come close to achieving meaningful reductions (for reasons I detail here). Some may believe it’s better than nothing, but those folks are rare in Republican circles. If Republicans are ever gong to be convinced to endorse climate policies, they won’t be in the form of costly command-and-control emission regulations — regulations capable of imposing substantial pain for little gain.

The four seek to counter concern about the cost and potential inefficiency of environmental regulation by citing the nation’s history of environmental progress. That’s all well and good, but they use the Cuyahoga River as their prime example, citing the infamous (if poorly understood) 1969 fire as evidence of how bad things got before federal regulation and the lack of fires since as evidence for how effective such regulation has been at cleaning up the environment. The problem is they get the story all wrong. As I have detailed at great length, industrial rive fires used to be a major environmental concern — in the first half of the Twentieth Century. By the 1960s this problem had been largely solved, and without federal help. The Cuyahoga River fire of 1969 was not a symbol of how bad things could get, but a remainder of how bad things had been. It was also not much of a fire. The Cuyahoga River had caught fire many times between 1890 and 1960, and some of these fires had been cataclysmic. Not the 1969 burn, which was out in less than 30 minutes. It was an ecological aftershock, not a leading indicator. I recognize not everyone knows this history (even if it has now been covered extensively, but I think we can expect more from four former heads of the EPA. Even if this piece was ghost-written by some PR shop, I would have expected at least one of the four signatories to catch it.

I share the op-ed writers’ desire for a more pro-active GOP climate policy. If conservatives and other Republicans are not ready for a revenue-neutral carbon tax, I wish they would at least embrace other policies, such as meaningful investments in technological innovation. Op-eds like this, however, actually make the task of developing a conservative climate agenda more difficult, not less.

UPDATE: FWIW, Walter Russell Mead talks about climate policy in a way that is far more likely to move those on the Right.  He believes climate change is a problem, but also recognizes the environmentalist lobby’s tendency to embrace “statist, top-down fixes” to every environmental problem, demands tangible results to actual problems (e.g. facilitating low-carbon economic development in developing nations), acknowledges the efforts by some so squelch debate by purporting to speak for “Science,” and is concerned about the threat of rent-seeking in any centralized government response.  In other words, although not a man of the Right, he recognizes that those on the Right have legitimate concerns about the costs and consequences of climate policies.  Those who want to see meaningful progress on environmental issues — and don’t merely wish to use climate change as a fund-raising pitch and bludgeon to use against political enemies — would be wise to follow his lead.