Republican leaders are starting to take initiative on environmental issues. While more progress is necessary, their proposals are on the right track. Liam Glen analyses conservative solutions to climate change.
The climate change debate in the US has long raged between Democrats who wish to do something about the phenomenon and Republicans who deny its existence. However, as evidence of anthropogenic climate change becomes undeniable, this standstill is difficult to maintain.
I have written before on the Green New Deal and how it is reorienting the conversation around environmental issues. In particular, it has forced some Republicans to come up with their own solutions. These include Representative Matt Gaetz’s “Green Real Deal” and Senator Lamar Alexander’s “New Manhattan Project for Clean Energy.” Such proposals deserve a deeper look.
Republican proposals share progressives’ priority on moving towards alternative energy sources. However, while the Green New Deal focuses exclusively on renewable energy, Republicans are not so choosy.
Both the Green Real Deal and the New Manhattan Project endorse non-renewable forms of what they consider clean energy. This includes natural gas, which emits less carbon dioxide than coal but is primarily extracted through the controversial process of fracking, and nuclear power, which directly emits no carbon dioxide but produces radioactive waste and carries the ever-present risk of a meltdown.
Republican plans also champion carbon capture and storage, a process that captures carbon dioxide as it is emitted and then stores it, usually underground. It still an emerging technology, and environmentalists find themselves divided on its costs and benefits.
According to the proposals’ sponsors, fracking, nuclear energy, and carbon capture are necessary to reduce emissions. Moral purists who insist on 100 percent renewable energy only hurt the fight against climate change.
On the other hand, building nuclear power plants is expensive, and carbon capture requires massive investment. Renewable energy activists raise the concern of marginal costs and benefits. Put simply, if you have a billion dollars, should you invest it all in renewables, 500 million in renewables and 500 million in nuclear power and carbon capture, or some other combination? This is an important question, and it exemplifies the type of debate that is necessary as we move forward.
Unsurprisingly, Republican proposals put their faith in the free market rather than government intervention. The New Manhattan Project seeks to fund research into clean energy, but it does little to address the implementation of this technology. The Green Real Deal, meanwhile, calls for measures such as deregulation of the clean energy sector and tax incentives for energy efficiency.
This, however, still overestimates the market’s preference for clean energy. There is no telling how long it would take for businesses to transfer to low-emission sources by their own volition. But this does not mean that innovative market solutions that nudge businesses towards lower emissions do not exist.
Americans for Carbon Dividends (AFCD) campaigns for a tax on carbon dioxide emissions to incentivize clean energy. In response to the unpopular increase in energy prices that would accompany this, AFDC also calls for the revenue from this tax to go towards a monthly dividend for all Americans.
The plan was drafted by former Reagan cabinet secretaries Howard Baker and George Shultz, and AFCD is co-chaired by Former Republican Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott. However, carbon dividends need more support among current elected officials before they can take off.
A related proposal is emissions trading or cap-and-trade. The government puts a limit on the total amount of emissions allowed and gives businesses tradeable credits that determine how much they may pollute. Companies that can afford to cut emissions thus sell their credits to companies that cannot. Overall emissions are cut, and the invisible hand limits any financial harm to the private sector.
President George H.W. Bush famously utilized emissions trading to cut acid rain-causing sulfur dioxide emissions. These days, the policy is associated more with Democrats, but conservative support may return. The Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, which mandates state-wide carbon caps, counts several Republican governors among its members.
The Slow Death of Denialism
Of course, any proposal will only go as far as congressional Republicans will support it. Few of Gaetz and Alexander’s colleagues have followed in their footsteps. Doing such would be a risky business. While Americans as a whole grow increasingly worried over climate change, Republicans remain split on the issue.
The president is another factor. Donald Trump is an ardent coal supporter who once claimed that the concept of climate change is a Chinese conspiracy. He is unlikely to endorse a meaningful push for clean energy.
But as swing voters grow more alarmed by climate change, the Republican Party will have to address the issue at some point. Gaetz and Alexander’s proposals could use some work, but they represent an important step forward. Progress will come once we move beyond the debate over whether climate change is real and towards the question of what we should do about it.
Read also: The Green New Deal Is A Much-Needed Agenda Setter