President Barack Obama’s climate agenda announced last week represents the latest of many Democratic party efforts to address climate change. Although it includes no new legislation, the president’s plan makes unprecedented use of executive branch powers and offers a great many things that appeal to core Democratic constituencies. Implemented in full, the new power plant carbon rules, further delays in economically beneficial pipeline projects, and added green energy projects would result in a bigger, more intrusive government that exerts greater control over the economy, rewards perceived “good guys,” and punishes supposed “bad guys.” Not surprisingly, the plan, like all previous Democratic efforts, has earned a suspicious and hostile reaction from conservatives.
It doesn’t have to be this way. Rather than pretend climate change isn’t a problem, there are ample opportunities for Republicans to point out the obvious flaws in the left’s plans to deal with it and offer alternatives of their own. In short, conservatives can take a page from the liberal playbook and use the climate change issue to push policies that they favor anyway.
A detour into the undisputed facts about climate change illustrates why this strategy makes sense. Nobody seriously involved in the policy debate over climate change—not even those the left unfairly labels as “deniers”—actually denies that humans influence global climate. There’s also no dispute that the Earth is warmer than it was before the Industrial Revolution or that carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases can trap heat energy.
Likewise, there’s little doubt that the worst plausible projections of sea level rise and temperature change resulting from this warming trend would present major problems in almost every corner of the globe. While more carbon in the atmosphere could have some benefits, such as fewer deaths from cold, it’s also likely to pose a variety of severe problems ranging from droughts and floods to the destruction of commercial fishing. Nearly any accounting of these costs indicates they will exceed the benefits.
On the other hand, the extreme alarmism from some corners of the environmental movement isn’t warranted. The scenarios sketched out by climate models cover a broad gamut of possibilities. And the models themselves remain imperfect. For example, although current overall carbon levels and arctic ice melt are higher than most scientists predicted they would be today, actual temperature changes tend toward the lower end of most models. Moreover, increasing property damage tolls from natural disasters stem overwhelmingly from more people living in disaster-prone areas, rather than fundamental changes in climate.
In any case, focusing on the science can be something of a dead end. The scientific consensus that exists about the causes and effects of climate change can’t point to an optimal policy solution any more than improvements in heart surgery techniques can provide guidance on health care reform.
Indeed, if free-market conservatives really want evidence of climate change, they ought to look towards the insurance markets that would bear much of the cost of catastrophic climate change. All three of the major insurance modeling firms and every global insurance company incorporate human-caused climate change into their projections of current and future weather patterns. The big business that has the most to lose from climate change, and that would reap the biggest rewards if it were somehow solved tomorrow, has universally decided that climate change is a real problem. An insurance company that ignored climate change predictions could, in the short term, make a lot of money by underpricing its competition on a wide range of products. Not a single firm has done this.
Acknowledging that something ought to be done does not have to mean supporting the climate-related policies that Democrats have offered in the past, much less Obama’s latest power grab. The most ambitious Democratic-led effort to date, the bloated Waxman-Markey bill that the House passed in 2009, provides insight into how Democrats would deal with climate change if given a free hand. The act would have raised taxes by nearly $25 billion and created a framework to centrally plan much of the energy economy.
It was also a textbook exercise in crony capitalism. Virtually all of the money it hoped to raise—via a Rube Goldberg-like “cap and trade” mechanism—would have been redistributed to various politically connected industries around the country. It was that very patronage that proved successful in buying nine Republican votes for passage, more than for any other major proposal of the Obama administration.
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