President Trump’s formal announcement this week that the United States will withdraw from the Paris accord was the administration’s latest effort to undo the climate polices of President Obama. During his time in office, the president has also rolled back the Clean Power Plan and other regulatory controls on greenhouse gas emissions.
Those actions all potentially were warranted. Neither the Clean Power Plan nor the Paris agreement would have done much to forestall climate change. Neither was capable of producing sufficient emission reductions nor doing much to expand carbon-free energy here and abroad.
The problem is that the administration — and Republicans generally — haven’t come up with an alternative approach.
As a conservative, I was heartened by Trump’s proclamation over the summer that environmental protection was a “top priority” of his administration. I had hoped that declaration would be the start of a robust conversation about a conservative approach to the very real threat of climate change. It was not.
Republicans know what environmental regulations to oppose, but they have a hard time identifying positive environmental policies to support. Nowhere is this more evident than with climate change.
Meaningful climate mitigation requires stabilizing (and eventually reducing) atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases. This, in turn, requires a dramatic transformation of the energy economy, both here and abroad. The type of technological transformation necessary for this feat is similar to that which we saw in telecommunications, as resource-intensive technologies, such as copper wire, were replaced first by fiber optics and eventually by spectrum. The economy’s decarbonization efforts must match this sort of transformation.
Traditional environmental policy tools, such as regulatory mandates and directed subsidies for favored technologies, are a poor fit for the climate challenge. Federal agencies cannot simply mandate the development of technologies necessary for such a transformation. What the government can do is can create a legal and economic environment in which such technologies are more likely to emerge and be deployed — and they can do so in ways that are entirely consistent with traditional conservative commitments to free enterprise and limited constitutional government.
Key to any successful climate policy will be enhancing incentives for low-carbon innovation, without trying to pick winners and losers, while simultaneously removing barriers to their development and deployment. Transferring federal research and development funds away from grants and toward innovation prizes would enhance the incentives for innovation, as would the imposition of a revenue-neutral carbon tax. Taxing the carbon content of fuels would provide a powerful signal to would-be innovators and existing firms that reductions in carbon-intensity will pay dividends. Rebating the revenues to taxpayers would simultaneously offset the economic consequences of the tax while also mitigating the burdens it could impose on the poor.
Another important step is undoing regulatory measures that hamstring our ability to develop and deploy low-carbon technologies. Take the case of wind power. Offshore wind development has faced a regulatory gantlet similar to (and sometimes worse than) that faced by offshore oil platforms — a sure way to stall forward-looking projects and chill needed investment. NIMBY efforts have also choked the deployment of wind farms on land. Conservatives should recognize that new technologies and nascent industries are particularly vulnerable to regulatory burdens and move to reduce those barriers.
The federal government should also stop interfering with state and local climate efforts. One of federalism’s virtues is that it allows different jurisdictions to act as laboratories, experimenting with different policy measures. The nation benefits when such experiments succeed, but also when they fail. Learning what sorts of policies don’t work is as important as discovering those that do.
Currently, the Environmental Protection Agency is seeking to end California’s ability to set its own vehicle emission standards, and the Justice Department is challenging California’s greenhouse gas cap-and-trade program in federal court. Perhaps conservatives are correct that California’s climate policies are overly costly and prescriptive, but that is no reason for the federal government to get in the way of state-level initiatives. Instead of opposing California’s efforts, conservatives should encourage states under Republican control to develop meaningful alternatives.
If Republicans cannot be convinced to take climate change seriously on the merits, perhaps they will recognize that engaging with climate and other problems may be necessary for their own political survival. Recent surveys reveal most Republican voters recognize climate change is a problem, and younger voters in particular want to see political leaders act to conserve the environment. Abdicating leadership on climate change sacrifices this potential political support.
In a recent environmental address, Trump embraced “our profound obligation to protect America’s extraordinary blessings for the next generation and many generations.” Recognizing such an obligation is a positive step — but such words need to be matched by meaningful action.
Jonathan H. Adler is a professor of law and director of the Coleman P. Burke Center for Environmental Law at the Case Western Reserve University School of Law.