POLITICS
05/01/2017 06:57 pm ET Updated May 02, 2017

There Is A Conservative Approach To Climate Change

It's just not what Bret Stephens, The New York Times' new columnist, says.

There have been two basic responses to The New York Times’ hiring of conservative writer Bret Stephens, and to his first column, which dug in on his argument that climate change might not be the crisis scientists are telling us it is.

Many climate scientists and advocates ― and science-minded people, generally ― are outraged that the Times would grant prime real estate to such views. The counter-response from the right asserts that liberals just can’t stand a conservative voice on the op-ed page ― see here, here, or here for evidence of such. Editorial page editor James Bennet’s feeble defense also seems to endorse that argument.

But many of the responses assume that Bret Stephens’ views are the only conservative approach to climate change ― and that’s not true. While Stephens may bemoan “overweening scientism,” there are plenty of conservatives arguing for conservative responses to the threat of climate change.

Take James Brainard, the Republican mayor of Carmel, Indiana, since 1996. He’s put a priority on lowering emissions because it saves his city money and makes it a nicer place to live ―more walkable, dense, and bike-friendly. When I caught up with him on Monday, he was happy to brag about the 22 percent rate of return they’ve seen on their investment in replacing street lights with energy-saving LEDs. They’re also installing 28 new roundabouts ― they already have more than any other city in the U.S. ― because they improve traffic flow and cut emissions.

“Even if one is a skeptic about the science, one ought to err on the side that the science is correct, to be prepared,” said Brainard. “I hesitate to call that conservative or liberal. It’s less reckless. I would argue it’s more conservative to plan for contingencies.”

It’s fiscally conservative in the sense that his city has saved money, and made an investment in the future economy, Brainard said. “We ought to be developing technology that we can send to the rest of the word that has a positive impact on the environment,” he said. “If you’re a skeptic or not, the world wants these products. Why aren’t we developing and selling them?”

There isn’t just one conservative approach to the issue. A prominent group of Republicans, including former Secretaries of State James A. Baker III and George Shultz, and former Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson, introduced a carbon tax plan in February, calling it “an insurance policy” against the “mounting evidence of climate change.”

The free-market think tank R Street advocates for a tax swap that sets a fee on emissions in exchange for cutting taxes in other areas. R Street has joined Friends of the Earth and Taxpayers for Common Sense to create list of environmentally problematic federal programs ― a unique partnership between small-government conservatives and environmentalists on shared priorities.

The group ConservAmerica advocates for what it calls a “Zero Regrets” energy and tax policy that eliminates taxes on no-emissions energy (which it considers nuclear, hydropower, wind, solar, and some types of biomass).

“It’s a conservative solution. For one, it’s a tax cut primarily,” said Rob Sission, the group’s president. “Even if you’re in Bret Stephens’ camp and don’t believe [climate change] is a big problem, it’s an insurance policy. If there’s a possibility it could be anywhere near the problem a lot of people believe it is, why not do something to address emissions that would not be a negative on the economy and would spur energy, innovation and jobs?”

There are also efforts in Congress. A group of 17 House Republicans ― many of them from parts of the U.S. most vulnerable to climate change ― came together in March to call for “prudent, fact-based stewardship of our economy and our environment.”

A new television advertisement released on Monday, the first of five that the nonprofit Partnership for Responsible Growth plans to run in the Washington metro region, seeks to promote conservative-minded climate solutions. “When you’re 97 percent certain, you’re certain,” says the ad, referring to the finding that 97 percent of peer-reviewed studies on the subject support the finding that climate change is real and largely driven by human activity. The ad has the backing of several prominent conservative thinkers on climate change. 

While Stephens’ column seems to argue that uncertainty is a reason not to act aggressively on climate change, Jerry Taylor, director of the libertarian think tank Niskanen Center and a recent convert on climate science, said it’s just the opposite. “The most likely outcome is eventually an increase of 1.5 to 4.5 degrees,” Taylor said during a press call announcing the new ads Monday. “That’s a pretty big range. There is uncertainly, but the uncertainty cuts both ways. It could be catastrophic. … We are running a one-off experiment. We have never seen this rapid loading of emissions in the atmosphere.”

Alex Bozmoski, director of strategy and operations at RepublicEn, a conservative group that advocates for free-market solutions to climate change, was less bothered by Stephens’ column than others. He agreed that climate activists on the left too often overstate the certainty to paint a doomsday scenario and claim sole ownership of the science. But, if anything, that’s even more of an argument for conservatives to engage on policy solutions.

“Climate change is really hard, because we will never know with certainty what impacts will follow from any specific emissions pathway or timeframe,” said Bozmoski. “Science is really important at conveying the probabilistic risk-assessment of different scenarios. It can inform our ethical decision-making in politics.

“I hope that part two of [Stephens’] op-ed is how America should make decisions under uncertainty, and what policy prescriptions make the most sense to mitigate the risks of climate change,” he added.

Peter Bryn, a former ExxonMobil engineer and the conservative director for the Citizens Climate Lobby, argued it’s dangerous to pretend there aren’t conservatives who care about the issue and want to see it addressed, because that only serves to make the issue even more partisan than it has been.

“Yes, there are conservatives that do not accept the mainstream science,” said said Bryn. “But there are a lot that do.”

CORRECTION: This article previously misstated that Carmel had seen a 22 percent annual savings in energy costs from switching to LED lights; rather, the city saw a rate of return on its investment of 22 percent.

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