The Future of Conservative Climate Leadership
Climate change didn't always divide Americans along partisan lines. As recently as the first Bush presidency, near-identical majorities of Republicans, Democrats, and independents told pollsters they worried about climate risks. Educated conservatives were more likely than liberals to affirm the claim that scientists believe warming is man-made, and legislators on both sides of the aisle were invested in tackling the issue. Emboldened by broad support from the public, Republican and Democratic lawmakers collaborated to enact a major environmental law — the Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990 — and ratify the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change in 1992.
In the years that followed, however, climate change became increasingly associated with progressive politics and big government. The top-down, anti-competitive nature of the 1997 Kyoto Protocol — which was pre-emptively rejected by the Senate 95-0 — colored perceptions of climate action so thoroughly that Republicans would reject the toothless Paris Accords on the same grounds a generation later. At the same time, environmentalists came to position themselves as a Democratic Party interest group, with leading advocacy organizations like the League of Conservation Voters consistently ranking among the top donors to Democratic politicians.
By 2009, climate-policy bipartisanship was on its last legs. Though Democrats had control of the White House and strong majorities in both chambers of Congress, they still needed Republican support to pass a climate bill. The American Clean Energy and Security Act passed the House, but the Senate failed to pass a companion bill. Rather than reaching across the aisle to negotiate a policy package Republicans could support, President Barack Obama gave lawmakers an ultimatum: "If Congress won't act soon to protect future generations, I will." The threat — and its promulgation via his administration's Clean Power Plan regulations — further entrenched Republican opposition to climate policy.
Thanks to these and other developments, the environmental movement's political identity has become inextricably entwined with the broader progressive agenda. This is apparent from a mere glance at the Sierra Club's website, which seems to devote as much energy to lobbying for legalized abortion as it does for environmental policy. This kind of one-party hegemony over the climate issue has created a pernicious feedback loop: Without competition in the marketplace of ideas, the law of group polarization pulls environmental progressives further to the left, which in turn further alienates ordinary Americans — and especially conservatives — from the climate issue. The results have been detrimental for both U.S. climate policy and conservatism: While the former is now equated with either radicalism or meaningless virtue signaling in the minds of many Americans, the latter has suffered long-term political damage as Millennials and Zoomers — demographics that poll as profoundly concerned about climate change across ideological lines — are forced to look to the left to find a political movement that purports to take the issue seriously.
But as Yogi Berra once said, the future ain't what it used to be. For the first time in decades, the prospects for conservative climate leadership are looking more hopeful. Researchers find that GOP elites are the most effective messengers when it comes to correcting climate misinformation among Republican voters. Those same leaders are turning a corner on climate policy, helped along by a new force in climate politics: the Eco-right.
THE RISE OF THE ECO-RIGHT
The setting for climate policymaking in 2021 is vastly different from what it was during the Bush and Obama years. Hydraulic fracturing has made America an energy-secure exporter, shale gas is outcompeting coal, and since 2009, unsubsidized solar- and wind-electricity costs have plummeted 90% and 71%, respectively. Support for clean energy unites vast majorities of Americans, and the desire for action on climate change now enjoys the backing of nearly two-thirds of the public. Just as the traditional business-driven pressure to ignore climate change has shriveled, major business interests — including the American Petroleum Institute, the Business Roundtable, and the Chamber of Commerce — are pressuring lawmakers to come up with predictable and transparent climate policies.
For decades, Democratic lawmakers benefited from the environmental left's staff, funding, research, media contacts, grassroots organization, and legislative and lobbying resources, while Republican lawmakers enjoyed extremely limited support — and plenty of loud opposition — from these same groups. But now, for the first time in a generation, the formation of a durable, effective climate coalition across partisan lines appears feasible. The Eco-right is at the helm of this resurgent bipartisan interest.
When one of your authors coined the term "Eco-right" in 2013 to describe a handful of scrappy, conservative-leaning non-profits and think tanks working to guide and embolden the right on climate-related issues, there was a vanishingly small number of Republican lawmakers who would go on record saying that America should lead on climate-risk mitigation. The movement had — and continues to have — only a fraction of the size and power of the environmentalist left. But its collection of young, energetic civic enterprises is already influencing Republican lawmaking and rhetoric in important ways.
As the Eco-right gained steam and a growing number of voters began to experience the real-world effects of climate change, GOP leaders started pivoting on the issue. The growing recognition of the need for an alternative to the left-wing climate agenda came to a head in the wake of the party's congressional losses in 2018. That year, Eco-right groups guided Republican leadership in assembling the GOP's first-ever climate-policy package. Several of these proposals eventually become law, including a tax credit for carbon capture that valued carbon dioxide at $35-$50/ton.
During the 2019-2020 congressional session, the Eco-right teamed up with Republican lawmakers again to introduce or co-sponsor dozens more emissions-cutting bills, ranging in scope from a narrow bill to help farmers and ranchers profit from climate-friendly soil-management techniques to several economy-wide, revenue-neutral carbon-tax proposals. This legislative momentum culminated in the passage of the American Energy Innovation Act (AEIA) — introduced by Republican senator Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Democratic senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia — as part of the December 2020 omnibus spending package. Between the AEIA and another provision limiting hydrofluorocarbon emissions, the omnibus was likely the most significant climate-change legislation in American history.
As a new era in climate politics is dawning, many conservative leaders of the next generation are dedicating their careers to ensuring that the results are both effective and practical. But what "effective and practical" climate policy looks like is a difficult question that splits the Eco-right into two distinct camps. To make sense of the debate between them, we need to unpack the suite of climate policies that align with conservative principles. This will also help us determine where the two sides' efforts might be fused together into an appealing climate agenda.
The task of formulating an Eco-right agenda raises an important question: What is the objective of conservative climate policy? The answer could consist of a numerical warming target, such as keeping global temperature increases below two degrees Celsius. It could be stated in more general terms, as in the phrase "a clean and abundant energy future." Or it could be cast in terms of political economy — "de-carbonizing as quickly as politically possible without causing excessive economic harm," for instance.
It isn't hard to see why the question is so vexing. Climate policy is full of high-stakes trade-offs, and determining the most prudent course of action requires an incredibly complex cost-benefit analysis that incorporates hard-to-measure factors, uncertainty, and ethical parameters. The costs of both action and inaction are typically measured in dollars, but they encompass everything from economic progress and national security to beauty, functioning ecosystems, and even life itself. Further complicating matters is the fact that the costs are uncertain, and are unevenly spread over time and space. Whether we weigh the costs of climate policy against the worst-case climate impacts, the best-case impacts, or something in between is a thorny question of risk tolerance.
Although cost-benefit analyses are indefinite and even dehumanizing, there is simply no better method for determining whether a given climate policy is too costly or insufficiently effective. And despite the ubiquity of the phrase "the science says we must," the best climate science can do is give us a probabilistic distribution of climate-change impacts under a given emissions scenario. In other words, science can help us understand the consequences of our actions, but it has little to offer in terms of solutions.
The best we can do, therefore, is engage in some well-calibrated version of this utilitarian method to weigh priorities, advance alternative goals and policies, and defend our positions against those promoted by the left. Conservative principles can inform how we assess the trade-offs of different approaches and help distinguish serious environmental policies from unserious alternatives.
In accepting this imperfect framework for setting objectives and comparing policies, we should also acknowledge that climate change presents unique challenges to the foundational assumptions of Anglo-American conservatism. The issue's global character, for example, challenges the first principles of the conservative ethos.
Since the emergence of its counterpart in the more radical strains of Enlightenment universalism, conservatism has celebrated the family, the local community, and the nation as the building blocks of human flourishing. Conservatives view the political world as one in which, as Yoram Hazony has written, "mutual loyalties bind human beings into families, tribes, and nations," and they oppose any quest for "a universal political order...in which a single standard of right is held to be in force everywhere."
These principles are often the driving forces behind conservatives' discomfort with the very notion of climate change, which many dismiss as a front for the cosmopolitan ambitions of the managerial class. There is something to this accusation, to be sure — one need only look to fashionable left-wing climate proposals like the Green New Deal to see how activists often use the climate issue as a Trojan horse for the broader progressive agenda.
But climate change, as a global phenomenon, requires a policy program that is occasionally in tension with conservatives' preference for subsidiarity. While state and local governments have an important role to play in adapting to climate change and spurring the uptake of existing clean technologies, only the federal government can effectively support the technological innovation necessary to address climate change while ensuring a level playing field between Americans and their international competitors. Just as the authors of The Federalist understood the importance of a national response to an attack on the United States by a foreign enemy, we should recognize that, on its own, a 50-states approach to an issue with the national implications of climate change would be futile.
At the same time, climate change does not require acquiescence to the progressive internationalist project. It is simply not the case that climate policy must be dictated to sovereign nation-states by unaccountable transnational bureaucracies. The Eco-right agenda can and should be a genuinely nationalist, American-led approach — one that conservatives of all stripes can get behind.
Pursuing serious conservative answers to left-wing climate proposals is also an important step toward preserving the principles of localism and limited government in the long run. Rejecting imperfect but necessary policies in pursuit of greater freedom today will lead to higher climate-change costs and, in turn, a greater push for more invasive government-driven responses down the road. Arresting the advances of climate change now will protect against the growth of centralized power in the future.
A TAXONOMY OF CLIMATE POLICIES
In approaching the conservative climate project, the Eco-right draws on several primary motivations, including a desire to protect people and places from harm, a sense of duty to secure an abundant and sustainable energy future, an increasingly urgent political imperative to address an issue prioritized by younger voters who might otherwise turn to more radical movements, and a commitment to American moral, strategic, and economic leadership in the project of global de-carbonization. It is also guided by traditional conservative principles of prudence and humility with respect to the limits of political economy, a Hayekian skepticism of central planning, and a recognition of the trade-offs involved in every policy decision.
These principles translate into several concrete policy options, which fall primarily into three categories: regulation, taxation, and subsidization. As low-carbon technologies have advanced and government failures have slowed our response to climate change, other policy categories — including de-regulation, un-taxation, and un-subsidization — have emerged as well.
Regulation is typically the baseline expectation against which Eco-right advocates compare a new policy idea, especially with respect to reducing emissions from the power sector and other complex emissions-producing industries. Yet this method is not entirely off-limits for conservatives concerned about climate change. In fact, it may be desirable when the regulatory scope is narrow, when marginal pollution costs are extremely high, and when substitutes for the regulated product or activity are widely available. For example, the bipartisan American Manufacturing and Innovation Act (passed in the 2020 omnibus package) instructs the Environmental Protection Agency to phase down hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) used in refrigerants by 85% over the next 15 years. The HFCs it regulates are hundreds to several-thousand times more powerful at trapping heat than CO2 emissions, meaning the marginal pollution costs associated with these compounds are extremely high. Given these tremendous costs and the fact that the rules narrowly target HFCs, regulation is a prudent approach here.
De-regulation is a more popular tool than regulation among those on the Eco-right, as many antiquated and costly regulations continue to hold back development of American hydropower, nuclear-power, geothermal-power, and energy-storage technologies necessary to address climate change. De-regulatory measures that remove barriers to entry for new technologies, reduce transaction costs for low-carbon technologies, and encourage workers to take jobs in environmentally friendly sectors have found favor among conservatives and also proven ripe for bipartisan cooperation. Recent de-regulatory reforms that have drawn support across party lines include the Nuclear Energy Innovation and Modernization Act and the USE IT Act, the latter of which streamlined environmental permitting for CO2 pipelines.
Taxation is another tool at conservatives' disposal. Despite Republicans' general opposition to tax increases, taxing pollution is a popular option among many on the Eco-right. Since taxation doesn't require government tracking of energy use or technology, it offers an effective solution that is both administratively and practically simple to carry out — especially when compared to complex regulatory regimes. Taxation of pollution would operate as a powerful innovation signal throughout the economy and require no foresight or guessing on the part of government actors as to where the most important technological breakthroughs will originate. It would raise revenue that can be recycled into tax cuts or paid directly to citizens through dividend checks, and represents the most efficient policy instrument available for promoting mass adoption of existing low-carbon technologies. Finally, taxation is the only instrument that allows the United States to assert power over the de-carbonization policies of other countries, as a carbon tax imposed on imports (and removed on exports) would encourage America's trading partners to enact their own carbon taxes.
Un-taxation as a solution to climate change has a natural appeal to the Eco-right, given the popularity of tax cuts among Republicans more generally. Some on the Eco-right advocate eliminating taxes on zero- or low-emission forms of energy, as well as cutting taxes on low-carbon alternatives in emissions-producing industries. Yet the strategy itself is more problematic. When tax cuts are targeted, they effectively function as subsidies. And even if an economy-wide application of un-taxation were possible, as some have argued, the fact that taxes are assessed on profits would mean that only incumbent firms would benefit from them.
Subsidization of low-carbon technologies is a more viable option than tax cuts, and could help make clean energy less expensive. Well-designed subsidies have contributed to extraordinary cost reductions in renewable-energy technologies, and given today's broad public support for high levels of government spending, subsidies have relatively smooth political pathways. Yet poorly designed or poorly chosen subsidies can be wasteful, prone to failure, and difficult to rescind. A perverse feature of the wind production tax credit, for example, has forced nuclear-power producers to sell baseload power for negative prices when the wind happens to be blowing during periods of low demand. Eco-right subsidization efforts thus tend to focus on moonshot research and development programs, and on "technology-neutral" subsidies that flow to low-carbon technologies performing most effectively and then phase out as those technologies reach maturity.
Un-subsidization is used in the context of fossil fuels, but it has a poor track record of political success. Subsidies tend to foster dependence on public resources and generate powerful coalitions to sustain their existence. Such is the case for U.S. fossil-fuel subsidies that range from direct production subsidies (deductions for intangible drilling costs, for example, as well as preferential leasing terms for drilling on federal lands) to direct consumption subsidies (including grants to families to pay for heating oil) to indirect subsidies that clearly exist but are difficult to isolate (such as externalized pollution costs and military defense for oil-transport lanes). Nonetheless, un-subsidization remains an option that some on the Eco-right embrace.
Eco-right advocates, scholars, and civic enterprises vary widely in their preferences for policy methods. Though there are active efforts promoting policies in each of the six categories, the three busiest lanes are taxation, subsidization, and de-regulation, while broad regulation of greenhouse gases remains unpopular.
INCREMENTALISTS AND VANGUARDISTS
Despite their shared motivations and principles, as well as the common policy options at their disposal, Eco-right civic enterprises tend to fall into two opposing camps when it comes to strategy. We call each in turn the "incrementalists" and the "vanguardists."
Incrementalists prioritize near-term, politically achievable policies that stoke innovation while making clean energy less costly. They tend to favor research-and-development funding over more ambitious — and more controversial — de-carbonization initiatives. This emphasis is based on the assumption that when clean-energy technology is affordable to the rest of the world — and especially to the rapidly industrializing developing world — a reduction in greenhouse gases will follow, and that America will prosper if U.S. investors, firms, and workers are the ones who develop, own, and sell these technologies. Incrementalists also tend to seize on opportunities to support Republican-led policies that may achieve or potentially unlock de-carbonization efforts in the future.
The incrementalist approach has been critical to building a GOP that is friendlier toward climate policy. For decades, Republican officeholders and candidates who staked out pro-environment positions found themselves targeted by both partisans on the left and antagonists on the right. Since few swing states and districts remain today, the highly skeptical constituencies that continue to make up the Republican base ultimately pose the biggest political risk to the party's elected officials who favor climate policymaking. Incrementalism can help these officials craft effective climate policies without provoking political firestorms. Examples include the promotion of carbon-capture and advanced nuclear technologies, the funding of local climate-research programs, government support for voluntary initiatives, and natural solutions like the One Trillion Trees initiative. At the state level, incremental efforts often focus on deregulation pursuant to ratepayer rights and electricity competition.
Eco-right incrementalists are sometimes criticized for what is perceived as a lack of ambition. They would answer truthfully that their efforts have helped to pass several laws — including the AEIA, which bundled scores of bipartisan, incrementalist bills. The fact that their efforts have a record of legislative success, incrementalists would insist, makes their strategy superior to the more ambitious approach of the vanguardists, whose aims remain largely theoretical. Some would even argue that the knock-on innovation benefits of incrementalist policy successes render more ambitious policies unnecessary. They would also point out that the House Republican leadership's shift in position from climate skepticism to pragmatic reform was only possible because Republicans could champion low-risk, incrementalist solutions.
Eco-right vanguardists, meanwhile, argue that de-carbonization is too massive, too important, and too risky a project to rely on narrow government programs or specific technologies, and that free enterprise is the only force known to humanity that is powerful enough to quickly and efficiently drive de-carbonization efforts. They insist that when actual costs are attached to climate pollution through a carbon tax, the market will respond by de-carbonizing. And unlike incrementalists' proposals, which are isolated to one industry or sector, the market signals from such a tax would permeate the entire economy.
Incrementalists criticize the vanguardists for being out of step with the political reality of the moment, which alienates potential Republican allies and makes it more difficult for the Eco-right to gain concrete policy wins. Though this criticism is fair, vanguardists have powerful allies — including major business and trade associations like the Business Roundtable and the American Petroleum Institute — as well as an astounding near-consensus of conservative and libertarian economists, from Greg Mankiw and Kevin Hassett to Arthur Laffer. Such support makes the long-term prospects of vanguardist policies viable.
When the AEIA passed Congress in December 2020, it would have been tough to distinguish these two camps from one another. The incrementalist camp, which was instrumental to the AEIA's success, cheered the bill as a massive win for a Republican-led energy-innovation agenda. The vanguardist camp cheered too, even if many of its members were skeptical of much of the spending, because wins on innovation bring more Republicans into the climate arena. For a moment, there appeared to be a united Eco-right coalition. But could such a coalition be possible?
TOWARD AN ECO-RIGHT FUSIONISM
In his seminal work How to Think Seriously About the Planet, the late philosopher Roger Scruton described environmental policy as rooted in oikophilia — our love of home. This love is what balances our freedoms with a sense of responsibility and obligation to one another, and to the stewardship of our community at large. In this way, Scruton placed the local community and civil society at the center of his environmental ethic.
Yet he also recognized the tension that exists between localism and the global nature of climate change. There is no perfect resolution to this tension, he acknowledged, only a series of second-best options. In choosing from among those imperfect routes, Scruton ultimately endorsed climate policies advanced by both the incrementalists and the vanguardists.
Taking inspiration from Scruton, the Eco-right should pursue a fusionist approach that embraces complementary means in pursuit of the same ends. An effective Eco-right fusionism would welcome diverse perspectives on the most appealing second-best options for managing climate risk, commit to prudent but comprehensive de-carbonization efforts that maximize collateral economic benefits, and stand on solid ground in its criticisms of the most extreme, dehumanizing, deracinating, anti-growth policies of the environmental left. It would seek to secure a future wherein America leads the way in supplying the world with low-carbon, zero-carbon, and negative-emissions technologies, and where future generations are unburdened of the worst harms of climate change. Such a coalition would be stronger than either incrementalism or vanguardism alone — in terms of both environmental and political effectiveness, as well as fidelity to conservative philosophy — for three reasons.
The first is political economy. Conservatives — including lawmakers, voters, and civil-society associations — are a diverse bunch. A conservative lawmaker from coastal Florida represents constituents with very different views on, and facing very different risks from, climate change than the constituents of a conservative lawmaker from central Indiana. The fuels and jobs mix in Idaho will lead a conservative lawmaker to prioritize different elements of climate policy than the fuels and jobs mix in Oklahoma. This reality means that some lawmakers will have the support at home to lead aggressively on vanguardist policies, whereas others will require a more incrementalist approach.
The diversity of circumstances and needs among varied locales and constituencies demands a diversity of policy options. Carbon-capture subsidies might offer leaders of fossil-fuel-producing states a means of wading into climate policy, while natural solutions might have greater appeal among constituencies in timber- and agricultural-based states. Conservative organizations interested in climate policy should thus work to develop a menu of policy options that easily sync to the unique realities of each constituency.
A second reason why an Eco-right fusionism would be effective is institutional strength. The consolidation of the environmentalist movement as a corollary to the Democratic Party has detached millions of conservationists — including members of garden clubs and land trusts, naturalists, rooftop-solar enthusiasts, small-business owners, and so many others — from the civic enterprises that directly engage with lawmakers on climate-related policy. Eco-right civic enterprises need to find these right-of-center environmentalists and develop relationships that enable learning in both directions. Such connections cannot be built by pre-empting discussions of policy priorities with already-sorted, non-negotiable policy proposals. Incrementalists and vanguardists, therefore, should use their comparative advantages in communicating with, and catering to, these varied segments of civil society.
Third, the policies of incrementalists and vanguardists work better together than they do in isolation. The two camps are focused on addressing two different market failures — the underproduction of research and development for the incrementalists, and the overproduction of pollution for the vanguardists — with different policy toolkits. Each camp has a fine claim to addressing both market failures, but the incrementalist toolkit is superior for correcting the research-and-development failure, while the vanguardist toolkit is superior for correcting the pollution failure.
On the incrementalist side, there's a strong case that, even when accounting for waste and failure, government spending can push promising technologies through the research, development, demonstration, deployment, and test-market phases of the technology-development cycle. But this approach is far less efficient than a vanguardist carbon tax at commercializing and promoting mass adoption of existing technologies, stoking innovation that government cannot predict (and therefore cannot subsidize), and leveraging policy changes in other countries via tariffs. Moreover, incrementalist policies that promote innovation will have a greater impact if, owing to a vanguardist carbon tax, low-carbon technologies can compete in a marketplace undistorted by free pollution, while a carbon tax would be even more efficient if better technologies were commercially available.
Vanguardists, therefore, should be eager to collaborate with incrementalists on prizes and research, on the development and deployment of breakthrough technologies, and on rolling back government regulation wherever rules are hampering competition for low-carbon technologies, while incrementalists should work with vanguardists to see their more ambitious aims implemented in the long term. Both camps should view their approaches as complementary.
A FUTURE FOR CONSERVATIVES
As with any political coalition, the Eco-right will inevitably have to reckon with tensions and disagreements within and between its factions. But conservative environmentalism also represents a unique opportunity to unite warring tribes on the right. In the face of the emerging cracks in the Cold War-era fusionist consensus — which traditionally served as the ideological glue that held libertarians, social conservatives, and defense hawks together — environmental policy offers enormous potential for building a new, durable conservative coalition.
The Eco-right already contains the faint beginnings of this project. Libertarians and classical liberals populate a disproportionate number of the prominent Eco-right activist groups, as serious climate solutions require a kind of technological innovation and entrepreneurial dynamism that is particularly appealing to advocates of a free market. But environmental conservation is also entirely in line with social conservatives' emphasis on place, community, and continuity, as well as the Burkean partnership between the dead, the living, and those yet to be born. Rod Dreher's Crunchy Cons identified this emerging traditionalist constituency of right-wing nature lovers back in 2006, but it has become all the more pronounced with the debates over liberalism, populism, and nationalism that have consumed the conservative movement in recent years. Additionally, the Pentagon under both Republican and Democratic administrations has repeatedly emphasized that climate change is a pressing national-security issue. This should catch the attention of hawkish conservatives who are interested in American leadership on the world stage.
At the moment, the Eco-right resembles the disorganization and ideological incoherence of the pre-fusionist conservative movement. Recognizing the common interests and objectives that its disparate contingents share will be the first step toward building a new conservative coalition that is capable of formulating, articulating, and implementing a practical, effective policy agenda for the 21st century.