Wednesday, July 30, 2014

The deafening silence of "reform conservatives" on climate change

With climate change policy in the news this week, I thought I might take the time to broaden my horizons by checking out the energy policy ideas contained in a recent policy book Room to Grow published by the YG Network. The book has been widely hailed as representing the best, freshest conservative thinking on the pressing issues of the day. The editors of the National Review called it "evidence that conservatism may be experiencing an intellectual resurgence as well as a political one."

On climate, as it happens, it has nothing to say.

They don't mount an argument that the scientific consensus on anthropogenic global warming is mistaken. They don't mount an argument that despite the scientific consensus, inaction is nonetheless the right policy. They don't mention it at all. Not even as something their political opponents wrongly care about.

The thought process that ended with this approach is easy enough to understand. Whether climate change is a massive conspiracy orchestrated by Al Gore, 99 percent of scientists, and a dazzling array of foreign governments or a genuine problem is hotly debated inside the conservative movement. Whether or not fossil-fuel producers should be hampered in their activities by regulatory concern about pollution, by contrast, is not controversial. For smart, up-and-coming conservatives to mention climate change, they would have to pick a side on the controversial issue. Do they sound like rubes by siding with the conspiracy theorists, or do they alienate the rubes by acknowledging the basic facts and the coming up with some other reason to favor inaction?

The optimal choice is not to choose.

Unfortunately, the result is to paint a rather mysterious portrait of the policy landscape. In the energy chapter, the author, Adam White of Boyden Gray & Associates (who assures us he is not writing on behalf of his clients' interests), complains that "in recent years, middle-class households have had an energy policy imposed upon them by regulators and ideologues." A footnote following that sentence suggests a particular complaint with the Obama administration's EPA-led imposition of higher automobile fuel efficiency standards. The merits of these measures are open to debate, but the reasons regulators implemented them isn't a mystery. It's part of a larger strategy for tackling climate change including its international dimensions.

By the same token, White goes on at some length about the problem of securing pipeline approvals without acknowledging that the protest movement against the Keystone XL pipeline is motivated almost exclusively by concern about climate change.

Of course one does not expect conservatives to endorse liberals' approaches to these issues or even necessarily to share their concerns. But discussing energy policy without even using the words "climate change" or "global warming" makes nonsense of the actual political debate. And since concern about carbon dioxide emissions is at the heart of liberal thinking about energy, refusing to acknowledge that the concern even exists makes it impossible to to try to think of compromises or constructive areas for joint action.

It's no surprise to learn that American politics is increasingly polarized, but nowhere has this change come harder or faster than on climate. Just a few years ago, the GOP's presidential nominee, John McCain, ran on a fairly robust climate change platform. Now even the most forward-thinking elements of the conservative coalition have simply disappeared the issue from the agenda.

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