We will never be able to pass climate and energy legislation in the US without engaging conservatives. So it is crucial that we understand their opposition to the science of climate and develop strategies that are consistent with their ideological bent. Although modern-day Republicans have a reputation for being anti-environment, it has not always been this way. Historically, some of the most environmentally oriented Presidents have been Republicans.
Some Republican members of Congress have contended that the science of global warming is a hoax perpetrated by a global conspiracy of climate scientists. Meanwhile, others acknowledge that the Earth is warming, but attribute it to natural warming rather than human activity.
The theory of natural warming has been effectively put to rest, due to a body of evidence that includes research by McGill University physics professor Shaun Lovejoy, computer modeling, reports from the most recent International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and the Third US National Climate Assessment.
Conservatives resist climate and energy legislation. Part of the problem is due to reflexive disagreement with Democrats which leads to self serving political partisanship. Obstructionism serves their short term political agenda. Part of the reason why Republicans take these positions is because they are ignorant. To make matters worse, the more they are portrayed as anti-science, the more they are politically motivated to distance themselves from science. We need to give conservatives a face saving way of getting in touch with reality.
Economics and climate change
It is hard to get conservatives to listen to arguments for the merits of combating climate change when the economy is weak. We saw this issue play out in the 2010 midterms when Republicans fared better than the Democrats.
However, as the economy recovers, making the point that global warming comes with massive costs becomes easier. It is becoming increasingly clear that climate change is already having a broad impact on the economy.
While the cost of climate change is already staggering, it is destined to get far worse. According to a study from the Stockholm Environment Institute called Valuing the Oceans, if the rise of greenhouse gases continues unabated, sea level rise alone will result in costs of $2 trillion each year.
Some have estimated that in the last two years alone, delays in engaging climate change have cost us $8 trillion. The longer we wait, the higher the price tag. The IEA says that climate change will cost $115 trillion by 2050.
The cost of mitigation is far smaller than the costs associated with climate change. In the final analysis, runaway climate change will undermine every aspect of our economy, so there is a powerful economic argument that can be made in defense of legislating mitigation efforts.
Free markets and climate change
There are central tenants of orthodox conservatism that are entirely consistent with combating climate change. Central to this thesis are free markets and free enterprise. Nowhere is this more pertinent than on the issue of energy, if we take all the subsidies and tax breaks away and factor the real costs of energy, including carbon emissions, it becomes readily apparent that cleaner forms of energy will win out over fossil fuels.
God, religious morality and climate change
We need new narratives to reach people who may not respond to science. Conservatives tend towards Christian fundamentalism. Republicans may be receptive to the argument that we are morally obliged to engage in environmental stewardship. Worshipping God in or behind creation infers such stewardship. New narratives can highlight the role of morality and spirituality in combating climate change.
The rule of law and climate change
Conservatives tend to believe in the rule of law. Their preoccupation with things like property rights acknowledges that when a person or a corporate entity does something on their property, that adversely impacts their neighbors' property, and it violates biblical law, english common law and American common law. Carbon emissions clearly contravene all three types of law.
There is a powerful logic to making polluters pay. This position is supported by Energy and Enterprise Initiative (E&EI), a nationwide public engagement campaign that explores and promotes conservative solutions to energy and climate challenges in the U.S. Such taxes would eliminate the market distortion, which allows companies to emit unlimited amounts of carbon. Instituting a revenue neutral carbon tax (as opposed to one that generates revenue), may appeal to some Republicans. U.S. cap and trade legislation failed in 2009 due in large part to the perception that it was another effort to generate money for the federal government.
One of the salient reasons why many Republicans resist such carbon taxes is due to the argument that even if the U.S. were to institute such a tax, China, the world's leading carbon emitter, would be given an unfair advantage. However, if the U.S. took a leadership role, they could tax all imports based on their carbon footprint. Once the U.S. secured the support of the WTO, nations like China would be forced to follow. China would be faced with the choice of either collecting those taxes themselves at source or watching Chinese firms pay those taxes to the U.S.
To get Republicans onboard requires that a few brave individuals opt to transcend the petty tribalism in the national interest. However, as the public becomes better informed, this may also serve their own political interests. We need climate and energy legislation and there is no avoiding the fact that we need Republicans if we are to succeed in passing such legislation in the United States. Members of the GOP who are reluctant to cross the partisan divide need to be given a rational to do so.
Richard Matthews is a consultant, eco-entrepreneur, green investor and author of numerous articles on sustainable positioning, eco-economics and enviro-politics. He is the owner of The Green Market Oracle, a leading sustainable business site and one of the Web’s most comprehensive resources on the business of the environment. Find The Green Market on Facebook and follow The Green Market’s twitter feed.
Image credit: Katja Torres-Ortiz, courtesy flickr