William F. Buckley, widely considered the father of modern conservatism, once opined: “Conservatives pride themselves on resisting change, which is as it should be. But intelligent deference to tradition and stability can evolve into intellectual sloth and moral fanaticism, as when conservatives simply decline to look up from dogma because the effort to raise their heads and reconsider is too great.” A perfect illustration is the GOP’s current stance on climate change—an issue Buckley himself took seriously.
In the face of overwhelming scientific consensus, today’s Republican leaders either deny climate science outright or insist that any solution, as Marco Rubio recently claimed, “would have a devastating impact on our economy.” This has relegated the GOP to playing defense at the moment that President Obama is turning climate mitigation into a central pillar of his legacy and heading to Paris to broker a global climate agreement. Republicans have backed themselves into a losing climate position that not only reflects poor science, poor economics, and poor strategy, but also betrays enduring conservative principles.
The party of Theodore Roosevelt has forgotten that stewardship stands among its most noble traditions. As Russell Kirk, author of The Conservative Mind, put it: “Nothing is more conservative than conservation.” It was Ronald Reagan, after all, who signed the Montreal Protocol, the most successful international environmental agreement to date. But today’s Republican leadership views stewardship as incompatible with free enterprise and limited government. This is a shame, as the conservative canon could offer America a better climate solution than Obama’s Clean Power Plan.
So what would a conservative alternative look like? Naturally, it would be market-based. It would begin by fixing a widely known flaw of free markets: their tendency to produce negative externalities—such as pollution—as a result of not being factored into market pricing. The obvious remedy is a carbon tax, which economists of all stripes overwhelmingly favor. Recent advocates include Henry Paulson and Gregory Mankiw, respectively secretary of the treasury and chairman of the council of economic advisers under President George W. Bush.
Perhaps this explains the recent spike in the share of Republicans who acknowledge that climate change is occurring: from 47 percent to 59 percent in the latest University of Texas Austin poll, and from 47 percent to 56 percent in the latest University of Michigan one. Among younger Republicans and political independents —two key swing groups—support is considerably higher. Come the 2016 general elections, these numbers suggest that the Republican presidential nominee may well be cornered in an unpopular position for lack of a conservative climate solution. How, voters will increasingly ask, can the GOP claim to be the party of the future, without a plan to safeguard it?