How the GOP Could Win the Climate Debate

By Eric Bradenson

Editor's note: This article was awarded second place in the "Young Conservative Thought Leaders" contest from the Energy & Enterprise Initiative at George Mason University.

Someone in the GOP needs to say it: conservation is conservative; climate change is real; and conservatives need to lead on solutions because we have better answers than the other side.  

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From traditionalists like Russell Kirk to progressive conservatives (far from an oxymoron) like Theodore Roosevelt, to movement conservatives like Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan, conservatives have long fought to protect the natural rights and property rights of individuals, living and unborn, from infringement by environmental degradation and pollution.  

So why are so many Republicans in Congress taking a weed eater to what would naturally grow from the rich soil of conservatism?

Democrats have owned the climate change conversation for years, for the worse. The issue is perceived as “liberal” because only Democrats really discuss it. The left grabs the headlines with protests, civil disobedience, coordinated big-money campaigns, and sensationalist claims that the sky is falling. The left has been so successful at commanding the debate with talk of government mandates, reckless spending, and picking winners and losers that it has actually worsened the intransigence of conservatives on the issue.

The center-right has, quite frankly, buried its head in the sand for fear of being associated with those proposals to tax, spend, regulate, and distort. I’ve seen it first hand. Many Republicans see no room for consensus and feel backed into a corner. The “safe” position is to question the science, especially the left’s most alarming and often tenuous assertions. But justifying inaction because the science isn’t “settled” is like saying we shouldn’t take on Social Security reform because we don’t know whether it will go bankrupt in 2030 or 2035.

Republicans don’t have to choose between conceding to the left and denying the science. There are genuine pro-growth solutions that align with conservative values. Republicans can admit that 97 percent of scientists just might be right without having to embrace Democratic ideas that would grow government.

In the past year, a movement of conservatives outside of Congress has pushed a market-based solution to climate change. This conservative alternative envisions a phase-out of subsidies for all sources of energy coupled with a revenue-neutral carbon tax swap. This is exactly the kind of proposal that gives Republicans the chance to win both in a messaging battle and on policy merits.

Energy subsidies come in many forms and most serve as a proxy for a price on carbon. Conservatives want to get rid of subsidies because they’re wasteful and inefficient and allow government to pick winners and losers in the market. Government subsidies also result in market uncertainty, rent-seeking problems, and inefficient allocation of capital. Importantly, getting rid of these wasteful expenditures can help reduce our deficit.

As the subsidies are being phased out, a revenue-neutral carbon tax swap should be phased in. A proposal like this wouldn’t force individuals to choose one energy source over another. It would simply “internalize the externalities” associated with the burning of fossil fuels and the emission of greenhouse gases, and the market would sort the rest out. 

There is a crucial piece of the carbon tax swap puzzle that will separate many liberals from conservatives. The left will attempt to use the carbon tax as a cash cow for the federal government, using the revenues to pay for legislators’ pet projects or to keep subsidies flowing to the preferred energy source du jour. 

The recent proposal by Senators Barbara Boxer and Bernie Sanders, for example, would spend 40 percent of carbon tax revenue on the Senators’ pet projects. It takes a concept that should have the intention of leveling out the market and then fundamentally distorts it by picking winners and losers with more government spending.

Republicans can win this debate by making it very clear: our carbon tax will not grow government. It will not take money out of hard-working American’s pockets to pay for more federal spending. It will instead be used to cut federal taxes, and it must be revenue neutral.

Most economists agree it’s better to tax just about anything other than income, the very thing that drives our economy. So even if a conservative is agnostic about climate change and carbon emissions, this can be embraced as an insurance policy against the possibility that climate change is a real human-induced problem, while letting Americans keep more of their hard earned income in their pockets. Regardless of one’s views on the extent of the climate problem, changing what we tax is real tax reform.

The economic effects in the long-term should be positive. Reducing income taxes can spur growth and investment. Greater competition would take hold in the marketplace by creating a level playing field since consumers would be paying the real prices for each form of energy. That way, it doesn’t matter if biomass or wind or nuclear is preferred by certain politicians. Each source would compete on price and reliability and the best one(s) would win out, resulting in the most efficient allocation of capital. Along the way, it helps address one of the most risky economic (and political, societal, etc.) threats out there: climate change.

Republicans in Congress could quickly reclaim this debate, but I recognize this won’t happen until a critical mass of conservatives in the general public buy in. That’s why conservatives outside of Congress -- the ones “with nothing to lose” like Bob Inglis, George Shultz, Art Laffer and Kevin Hassett -- are paving the way for Republicans to take the small government, pro-growth conservative stand on climate change. While I hesitate to extrapolate anecdotes to broader trends, I know from my experiences that there are a handful of Republican Members and a larger number of Republican staffers who recognize the problem -- for the country, for the party -- but don’t know how to solve it. 

Ironically, traditional Republican opposition to climate change proposals actually improves the chances that a clean, revenue-neutral carbon tax could be signed into law without all the big government add-ons that would otherwise be thrown in by Democrats. If we just come to the table, Republicans can lead on climate change and the American people will be with us.

Eric Bradenson, writing under a pen name to protect his boss and himself, is a conservative staffer on Capitol Hill working for a House Republican.  His views are his own.

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