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Rich GOP donor pitches conservative solutions to climate change, misses

Something fishy here ...
Something fishy here ...
(Shutterstock)

Last month, conservative North Carolina businessman Jay Faison launched a $175 million campaign to persuade Republicans to take climate change seriously. I didn't think too much of it, but I recently came across the website for ClearPath, Faison's nonprofit advocacy org, and it's a really impressive piece of work — accessible but also deep, drawing on serious, nonpartisan sources like the National Renewable Energy Laboratory and the International Energy Agency. It wisely focuses more on the promise of clean energy than on the peril of global warming, but it's rich with information and not particularly ideological.

It gave me a glimmer of hope. I am on record (see the links underneath this post) arguing that the Republican Party as currently constituted is, for all intents and purposes, unpersuadable on climate change. The marriage of fossil fuel money and hostility to government leaves no room for climate policy on the scale needed.

Nonetheless, I'd love to be proved wrong, so I was eager to read Faison's direct appeal to Republicans, published in Politico last week.

It is disappointing, substantially less sophisticated than the material on the website and also confused and misleading on several points. I suspect Faison wrote it in a way he thought would appeal to fellow conservatives. If that is true, it speaks poorly to the state of conservative thinking.

The conservative instincts that animate the Republican Party have hardened into rigid dogma, reinforced by funding from ideological billionaires and fears of primary challenge from the right. It is now de facto impermissible for any national Republican to support any new tax revenue, spending, or regulation. The only thing permissible for Republicans to do is shrink government — lower taxes, reduce spending, and block or remove regulations. (That's why virtually all GOP domestic policy, and much of Democrats' as well, is run through tax credits; they lower taxes, see, so it's not like big government spending at all.)

That anti-government dogma puts a straitjacket on domestic policy. Faison is forced to sell his climate policy proposals as lower taxes, less spending, and less regulation, which a) does not accurately describe them, and b) leaves no room for adequate climate policy. He argues that conservatism is a natural fit for climate action, but his piece demonstrates otherwise.

The fight is not between big and small government, it's between fossil fuels and clean energy

Faison begins with a basic misunderstanding, one that runs through the entire piece:

Energy policy should be a powerful tool in the coming Republican resurgence, but for too long we’ve ceded the issue to the Democrats. It’s time to develop a conservative national energy agenda that grows the economy, reduces our dependence on foreign oil, protects jobs over lizards and reduces greenhouse gas emissions that are warming our planet.

This is simply not true. Republicans have never ceded energy policy to Democrats, not willingly. Their energy policy is clear; it came into full flower under George W. Bush. Put simply, it is to support fossil fuel exploration, exploitation, and consumption, maintaining the industry's current tax advantages and waging war on any regulation that might impede its profits. It's the same kind of energy policy the GOP House has been passing throughout Obama's tenure, though the bills rarely get past the Senate (see here and here for starters). Republicans very much have an energy policy.

All the claims that Faison makes for his energy agenda (that it grows the economy, protects jobs, etc.) Republicans already make for theirs, save one: "reduces greenhouse gas emissions." GOP energy policy does not support that goal because that goal is incommensurate with the ongoing health of fossil fuel companies. It's no great mystery.

However, having ignored his party's extant energy policy, Faison has to speculate about why Republicans have ignored climate change:

First, the left has put forward Big Government, command-and-control climate solutions that scare any true conservative. Second, many liberals have been in denial about the progress the U.S. has already made: Thanks to energy efficiency gains and the shale gas revolution, our country’s greenhouse gas emissions are lower than they were in 1995. This should be something we celebrate.

The first point is nonsense. Environmental policy in the late 1990s and 2000s was dominated by environmentalists' search for market-friendly policies that could draw conservative support (especially after George W. Bush reversed his campaign promise to regulate carbon dioxide via the EPA). In the late 2000s, consensus formed across both parties that a market-friendly cap-and-trade system, of the sort that worked so well when George H. W. Bush signed it into law for sulfur dioxide, was the way to go. (Read about the history of cap and trade — it was all about harnessing markets.) John McCain co-sponsored a cap-and-trade bill and supported the policy well into his 2008 run for president.

That approach culminated in 2008 and 2009, when Democrats introduced a comprehensive cap-and-trade bill to Congress. Then the Tea Party happened, conservatives rejected cap-and-trade, the bill died an ugly death, and the GOP has not proposed any climate policy of its own, market-based or otherwise, since.

In other words, Democratic policy proposals are not the reason Republicans have rejected climate science. It goes deeper than that.

As to the progress the US has made in cutting emissions, it is the result of three things: a natural gas boom built on technology researched and subsidized by the government, efficiency programs mandated by legislatures or public utility commissions, and renewable energy deployment mandated by state renewable energy standards. These are successes of government policy, and it is not liberals who are in denial about them.

Faison repeats his initial mistake again:

If conservatives fail to put forward our own agenda, climate change policy will likely go the way of health care — the Democrats owned the answers, and we ended up with Obamacare. On carbon pollution, a similar dynamic is already happening; exhibit A is the Environmental Protection Agency’s new 111(d) rule. It mandates that states must reduce carbon emissions — by an EPA-decreed amount — from their existing power plants. The agency is requiring each state to develop its own compliance plan or face a federally imposed one. It’s a top-down, regulate-and-mandate solution rather than an economywide, market-based system.

More nonsense. Conservatives have put forward their own energy agenda; it is to block all challenges to fossil fuels.

Again, in 2009 Democrats were vigorously pushing an economy-wide, market-based system to reduce carbon emissions. Part of their argument in favor of that bill was that the alternative is EPA regulations, which are less cost-effective. Republicans made their choice — they chose to gamble that they could block the bill and block the regulations.

That's why EPA is now running the show — because Republicans refused to cooperate in creating a market-based program. The Clean Power Plan is not what happens when Democrats "own" policy; it's what happens when their preferred policy is rejected by Republicans and they are forced to choose between regulating and doing nothing. (The same process is playing out in Washington state.)

Faison's conservative solutions are neither conservative nor solutions

But enough about the past. What is Faison's conservative, market-based, anti-regulation solution to climate change?

First, we need to prevent and reform regulations that obstruct the promise and development of distributed solar power, especially on rooftops. ...

Second, conservatives should encourage and fund innovation and research and development in both the private and public sectors. ...

Third, conservatives should embrace and promote energy efficiency in their own lives and businesses. ...

Unshackling distributed solar and net metering from regulation. Funding and encouraging basic R&D. Promoting personal responsibility and energy efficiency. These are three good starting points for building a conservative agenda to tackle emissions.

The problem with these conservative solutions is that they are neither particularly conservative nor adequate solutions (nor even adequate "starting points").

First off, "unshackling distributed solar and net metering from regulation" makes about as much sense as "keep your government hands off my Medicare." Net metering is — brace yourself — a regulation. It has been implemented in 44 states by legislatures or public utility commissions. The fight to defend net metering is a fight on behalf of a government regulation that favors solar power.

Not that there's anything wrong with that. It's not as though getting rid of net metering would restore a "free market." There is no free market in electricity. In the US, the electricity sector is dominated by state-sponsored monopolies and shaped by regulations from top to bottom. There are areas in electricity where markets have been introduced, and others where markets could be useful and effective, but those markets are themselves entirely shaped by regulation.

Right now electricity regulation largely favors big, polluting, central-station power. There's a push underway to overhaul those rules to favor more distributed, clean energy. But that's not a fight between regulation or no regulation, between "big" or "small" government; it's a fight over what kind of rules we want, what outcomes we want to encourage, what we value. Either way, government rules form the landscape.

Faison's second proposal for more R&D involves ... more government spending. And his third, a call for voluntary efficiency, is impotent at any kind of scale; study after study after study shows that humans overlook opportunities for efficiency unless prompted by policy.

So that's the conservative solution: a regulation, some government spending, and private virtue.

The main problem with this solution set is that it's totally inadequate to the problem; it's hard to even credit a "starting point" that doesn't involve any direct attempt to limit emissions. Why doesn't Faison mention a revenue-neutral carbon tax, which he has supported in the past? That's likely not adequate to the problem either, but at least it's a version of the "economywide, market-friendly system" he promised earlier.

Mostly likely it's because the word "tax" scares off conservatives like a startled deer at the sound of a twig snapping in the forest, so Faison treads lightly.

But that gets to the second problem: Even the modest solutions offered are not particularly conservative, at least insofar as conservative has come to mean anti-government. They are all government programs (or they are fruitless).

Any credible response to climate change, any response that has a hope of scaling to the size of the problem, will involve rapid, large-scale changes to the status quo. In some cases that will involve implementing new regulations, in some cases changing them, in some cases getting rid of them. Some industries will be taxed more, some less. Incentives will shift.

But there's no way around it: If it's to be done at all, the transition to a low-carbon economy will involve aggressive government involvement. As long as conservatives reject the very idea of a constructive role for government, it's difficult to see how they will ever support climate policies equal to the task. Whatever its intent, Faison's appeal only seems to underscore that fact.

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