Democrats' Climate Agenda Deserves a Conservative Response
As the Democratic Party looks to advance what has been characterized as the “most progressive platform in the party's history,” there's never been a more urgent time for Republicans to revitalize their energy and climate agendas.
The Democrats’ formal 2016 platform will not be adopted until delegates convene for the Democratic National Convention, scheduled for July 25 to July 28 in Philadelphia. But a leaked version of the platform draft obtained by NBC News shows an intent to double down on “climate justice” and proposals to transform America into a “clean energy superpower,” long-standing priorities of the Democratic Party. Despite Republicans' best efforts over the years, there has been a pileup of regulations and market-stifling subsidies aimed at achieving these goals.
The Democrats’ platform correctly diagnoses the benefits of a renaissance in energy technology, including technologies to combat climate change. But by refusing to bend on their ideological attachment to command-and-control solutions to exaggerated problems, party leaders may impede the very future they long to see. The Republicans, meanwhile, if they hope to resist the problematic elements of the Democratic plan, must counter with their own pro-market energy and climate platform.
There is some good news in the platform. Democrats appear fortunately to have resisted disastrous “keep it in the ground” proposals, including proposed bans on hydraulic fracking and on fossil-fuel leasing on federal lands. Such proposals frame fossil-fuel use as a moral bad, disregarding the enormous economic benefits that fossil fuels provide society.
But the platform makes clear the party's intent to regulate, mandate, and subsidize our way to a clean-energy future. It is heavy on symbolism and short on cost-effective measures to reduce pollution. It reiterates support for the Clean Power Plan and for rejecting the Keystone XL pipeline. Neither policy would make a significant difference to combat climate change and both set poor policy precedents. The Clean Power Plan sets reduction targets for emissions that contribute to climate change. But these emissions reductions will largely or entirely occur anyways, thanks to prevailing economic forces, such as cheap natural gas replacing coal-fired power generation.
The platform offers little more than green industrial policy. It fails even to discuss a market-based approach to mitigate climate change. The direction is, instead, to ram politically preferred technologies onto the electricity grid, disregarding the economic processes that ensure the grid stays reliable and affordable. It also offers support for policies to extend subsidies that cost taxpayers billions, distort energy markets, and deter innovation.
The platform altogether neglects innovation, the most vital ingredient to worldwide climate progress. Despite a common belief that renewable-energy technologies already are cost-competitive, markets tell us these technologies still have a ways to go. Clean-energy technologies must become broadly competitive before we will see deep emissions cuts in developing countries, where the rubber hits the road on climate change.
Particularly troubling is the draft platform's addition of a plank focused on investigating those who disagree with the literal party line on climate change. The document couches this in terms requesting the Justice Department “investigate allegations of corporate fraud on the part of fossil fuel companies accused of misleading shareholders and the public on the scientific reality of climate change.”
Calling-out intentional distortions is valid, but legally prosecuting others' legitimate views is a fear tactic that makes a mockery of the First Amendment. It's also prone to backfire, as it's more likely to trigger discord and retaliatory investigations rather than foster the civil discussion America needs. Climate skeptics should be engaged with scientific evidence, not scared into submission.
Conservatives know the government has no business dictating what our energy mix should be or curtailing the rights of those who view things differently. The appropriate role of government is to ensure markets perform well. Competitive energy markets do perform well, but we need to ensure that they account for the societal impacts of pollution. Many conservative economists agree that the best remedy is a revenue-neutral carbon tax.
The time has come for Republicans to step into the climate leadership spotlight. A conservative climate-change platform can simultaneously shrink government, grow the economy, enhance choice, and deliver superior environmental results. Innovation should be the Republican energy mantra.
Such an approach begins with freeing — not restricting — the energy sector. States should follow Texas' lead and embrace competitive electricity markets and discard the choice- and innovation-stifling model of monopoly utility regulation. States and Congress should thoughtfully remove mandates and subsidies for government-preferred resources. Congress should ensure that competitive electricity markets under federal oversight encourage innovation and reward unconventional resources fairly. This will remove regulatory barriers to clean technologies and level the playing field for all technologies.
Putting a price on pollution is central to sensible energy and environmental policy. And it’s an idea that some conservatives, at least, are warming to. As Republicans craft their own platform, they have an opportunity to advertise the idea that the market, not the government, should be to work to address climate change.
Republicans also should double-down on what they do best: promoting economic growth domestically and abroad. Preparing for the inevitable effects of climate change is a piece of climate policy that gets grossly overlooked on both sides. Poverty exacerbates the human impacts of climate change. So the wealthier we are, the better we can adapt.
American capitalism is the greatest wealth and innovation engine the world has seen. Conservatives should set their sights on freeing markets and pricing pollution as a way to tackle climate change — and then tell government to get out of the way.
Devin Hartman is electricity policy manager and senior fellow at the R Street Institute.