Normally, the country can count on conservatives to deal in facts. We base policies on science, not sentiment, we insist on people being accountable for their actions, and we maintain that markets, not mandates, are the path to prosperity.
When it comes to energy and climate, these are not normal times.
We’re following sentiment, not science, we’re turning a blind eye to accountability, and we’re failing to use the power of markets.
The National Academy of Sciences says, “Climate change is occurring, is caused largely by human activities, and poses significant risks.” Several recent studies have found that 95 percent of climate scientists are convinced that the planet is rapidly warming as a result of human activity. But a George Mason University-Yale University poll in May found that only 13 percent of the public realizes that scientists have come to that conclusion.
You would expect conservatives to stand with 95 percent of the scientific community and to grow the 13 percent into a working majority. Normally, we deal in facts, we accept science and we counter sentiment — as we do when we stand for free-trade agreements, for entitlement reform and against minimum- wage increases. Each of those positions gets us in trouble with sizable constituencies, and yet we stand for the truth as we know it — that free trade increases our nation’s wealth, that entitlements are consuming the federal budget and that minimum wages create unemployment.
Courage fails us when it comes to energy and climate. Fearing our economic circumstances, we’ve decided to channel the fear rather than to confront it. Conservatives seem to think that climate change is for elitists, enviros and Democrats, not hard-working, God-fearing Republicans.
Thankfully, some are beginning to take a conservative approach rather than a populist approach. Gov. Chris Christie, the effective, deficit-cutting governor of New Jersey, has joined presidential candidates Jon Huntsman and Mitt Romney in saying that climate change is real and is caused, in part, by human activity. That Christie said those things while removing his state from a cap-and-trade compact is no contradiction. Most of us conservatives think that cap-and-trade is the wrong answer. Some of us support an alternative that involves changing what we tax (reducing taxes on income; shifting an equal amount of tax to carbon dioxide emissions).
Normally, conservatives are also people who believe in accountability. We start with proposition that humans are responsible moral actors, and we believe that behavior has consequences. So why don’t we hold power plants accountable for their emissions?
According to a study by Abt Associates in 2004, small particulates from coal-fired plants cause 23,600 premature deaths in the United States annually, 21,850 hospital admissions, 26,000 emergency room visits for asthma, 38,200 heart attacks that are not fatal, and 3,186,000 lost work days.
Because conservatives know that there’s no such thing as a free lunch, we know that we’re paying for those deaths and illnesses. We pay for them through government programs for the poor and elderly, and when the costs of the uninsured are shifted onto the insured. We pay all right, but just not at the electric meter.
We pay the full cost of petroleum in hidden ways, too. We pay to protect the supply lines coming out of the Middle East through the blood of the country’s best and though the treasure that comes from our taxes or, worse, from deficit financing. We pay in the risk to our national security. We pay the cost of lung impairments when the small-particulate pollution comes from tailpipes just like we pay when the small particulates come from power plants. We just don’t pay at the pump.
What if we attached all of the costs — especially the hidden costs — to all fuels? What if we believed in accountability? What if we believed in the power of free markets?
If we did, the price of gasoline and coal-fired electricity would rise significantly, but hidden costs paid in hidden ways would decline commensurately. If we simultaneously eliminated all subsidies, we’d unleash real competition among all fuels. Markets would powerfully deliver solutions. New power turbines would come to market that remove the sulfur and the mercury from coal before combustion, burning only the hydrogen. Emission-free nuclear power plants would be built. Electric cars would rapidly penetrate the market — not because of clumsy government mandates or incentives, but because sharp entrepreneurs would be selling useful products to willing customers awakened by accountable pricing.
The solution to our energy and climate challenge can be found in the conservative concept of accountability and in a well-functioning free-enterprise system. We conservatives just need to believe that.
Republican Bob Inglis represented the 4th district of South Carolina in the House from 1993 to 1999 and from 2005 to 2011.