Sunday, January 1, 2012

On Green Conservatism

One topic that I depart from some of my conservative compatriots is the environment and anthropocentric climate change. Or to put it simply, I do not share their skepticism that human activity is a significant factor in ongoing global warming. Many people ask why are otherwise rational individuals resist a theory that the majority of scientists affirm. I believe that privately a good number of the public skeptics do accept, to varying certain degree, man's role in climate change, but are deeply reserved about the policy implications that such a belief entails. But, thankfully we have seen the emergence of "green conservatism" and "free market environmentalism," whose proponents seek innovative and effective solutions to environmental ills while promoting economic liberty and property rights.

The first question we face is why some conservatives resist publicly acknowledging global warming. With  good reason they fear that it would be seized upon by politicians as an opportunity to expand the size and scope of the state. It would grant them a carte blanche to expand the power of the government's control to regulate, subsidize and penalize companies and whole sectors of the economy, while offering little discernible benefits. First, while I principle would love to see the expansion of the use of renewable forms of energy, current wind, solar and other "green" technologies are incapable of meeting more than a fraction of our energy needs. And even assuming that subsidies to "green" industries were well designed, well administered and not "polluted" by nepotism, economic history would lead me to question their effectiveness. An example is the laughable "Cash For Clunkers" program, which not only added billions to the deficit, but may have had lead to a net increased in carbon emissions. According to William Chameides, Dean of the Nicholas School of the Environment at Duke Environment,

"between 3 to 12 tons of carbon dioxide are emitted for each new car, due to such factors as shipping the car, and the electricity consumed in manufacturing. In addition, in order to offset the carbon footprint of the new car from a clunker, the average driver would need to drive the car about five and a half years; with trucks, the figure jumps to eight or nine years of typical driving." 

Furthermore, in the context of a global economy, heavy burdens placed on domestic industries would increase the flight of production to China, Mexico and other less regulated nations. Not only would this aggravate unemployment, but it may lead to a net increase in carbon emissions. Furthermore, American Conservatives question the wisdom of accepting costly regulations, while the chances that egregious polluters like China would seriously curtail their emissions are slim to none. And the though of granting greater power to unelected international bodies is anathema to almost any serious conservative.

But, let's say a team of environmentalists, engineers and economics were able to create an ambitious, effective plan to revolutionize production and consumption in the United States to seriously shrink our collective "carbon footprint." Tallying direct costs to tax payers and indirect costs to consumers, such a plan would run into the hundreds of billions, if not trillions. In theory, I could accept this, if politicians were willing and able to offer budget cuts that were equal to or greater than the cost of the environmentalist "Marshall Plan." But given the track record of Democrats and most Republicans, we can be certain that the costs would be heaped on our ever growing tower of debt, which is completely unacceptable.

So, whats a "green conservative" to do? To start off with, we must confront the fringe who erroneously believes that environmental concerns fall outside of the sphere of interest of conservatives. For if we as conservatives do not present creative, market driven solutions, "progressives" will promote policies that are contrary to economic and social liberty. Reforms in tax policies could go far in helping the environment, while also fostering greater economic growth. Tax burdens should shift away from corporate and individual income towards fossil fuels and other pollutants in a manner that addresses the externalities that they generate, i.e. the costs that they impose on the public. Under this scenario, the price of goods would reflect the costs that they impose on the rest of society. This would create effective market incentives for firms and consumers to adopt more environmentally friendly patterns of production and consumption. Admittedly I am reserved about expanding the power of the state to influence prices, but if this move were accompanied by the elimination of wasteful subsidies, invasive regulatory mandates and a reduction in corporate taxation, it could offer a net  . reduction in state economic intervention. This should be viewed favorably by clear thinking conservatives, because the socialization of costs represents one off the worst practices of the interventionist state.Economics have even put forth the argument that firm property rights, rather than government ownership of land provide the greatest long term environmental protection.

Even the most effective regimen of environmental taxation is only a fraction as effective as market forces in shifting patterns of production and consumption. The recycling of metal surged, not because of any government policy or environmentalist campaign, but because of the rise in cost of metals. More people opted away distant suburbs (not connected to public transportation), less because of environmental concerns and more because of rising fuel costs. And as the consumption of fossil fuels soars in China, India and the rest of the developing world, we can be certain that costs will rise, increasing incentives for companies to develop and consumers to purchase energy efficient, green technologies. We can only hope that changes in the tax and regulatory environment will occur that will allow this technological revolution to occur within the United States.

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