We Need Conservatives to Fight Climate Change

(Bloomberg View) -- The unprecedented hurricanes that have hit Texas and Florida, and the wildfires that have rampaged across California, seem to be pushing some reluctant conservatives from climate change skepticism to acceptance of reality. If so, that's great, because they're uniquely positioned to do something about it.

Scientists have long predicted that climate change would lead to more extreme hurricanes, and it makes sense that hotter air would exacerbate wildfires as well. Of course, the amount of randomness in these extreme events is so great that it doesn’t really make sense to switch one’s belief just because of a couple of storms. But if people like Republican Senator John McCain had been slowly edging toward abandoning climate change skepticism, and this was simply the final piece of data that pushed them over the edge -- well, better late than never.

For many Republican leaders, neither fire nor flood provides a reason to deviate from the party line that the threat of climate change is being exaggerated by liberals. That’s sad, because conservative ideas would be very helpful in the fight to limit further global warming.

First of all, conservatives are probably more likely to focus on the international aspect of the problem. American activists tend to put pressure on the U.S. government -- or on state and local governments -- to take unilateral action. That makes sense for activists, because they can’t do much about other countries or regions. But pro-business Republicans are wary of taking unilateral action, because if U.S. companies curb their carbon usage while their rivals in China, India and other developing countries don’t, it’ll mean a loss of competitiveness.

In this case, business interests happen to coincide with what’s good for the planet. In the past, developed countries accounted for the bulk of global carbon emissions, but no more. The U.S., Europe, and Japan all together emit about as much carbon as China and India:

We Need Conservatives to Fight Climate Change

And this is just the current situation. Bloomberg New Energy Finance projects that much of the growth in emissions will come from India and the developing countries:

We Need Conservatives to Fight Climate Change

In per capita terms, the U.S. -- being a rich, spread-out country with lots of driving -- still contributes much more than its fair share to global emissions. But Mother Nature doesn’t care about fairness -- it’s total emissions that drive warming, not the amount per person.

Moreover, if the U.S. takes unilateral action on climate -- say, by implementing a carbon tax -- the effect will be reduced if polluting businesses can just relocate their operations to China and other developing countries. That keeps carbon flowing into the atmosphere while hurting the U.S. economy. In fact, there is evidence that this has been happening.

So China, India and Southeast Asia must be a big part of any realistic climate solution. There are encouraging signs that these countries are willing to do their part, but to assure that these glimmers of progress don’t fade, the U.S. needs to play hardball in negotiations and push for coordinated global solutions. Business-friendly Republicans could be in the best position to achieve that.

Conservatives can also help by pushing business-focused solutions. These include revenue-neutral carbon taxes -- raising taxes on carbon in exchange for tax cuts elsewhere. Carbon taxes are a powerful policy tool, because they incentivize both energy efficiency and the development of alternative energy technology. And corporate tax cuts could help mitigate the offshoring of pollution to other countries. So far, liberal activists have fought this sensible solution tooth and nail.

Republicans could also change their stance on incentives for fossil fuel companies to clean up their act. After decades of reluctance to accept the reality of climate change, oil companies are now waking up. Giving them government incentives to shift to green business models would infuriate many liberals, who would see it as a reward for bad behavior. But it would help accelerate the transition to alternative energy, and remove one of the key lobbies against climate action. Also, conservatives are probably the only leaders who will support nuclear power, which has been languishing in recent years due to prohibitively high fixed costs.

So there are a number of important actions that only business-friendly conservatives would be able to pull off. This doesn’t mean that they have a monopoly on effective policies -- liberal initiatives such as subsidies for alternative energy research and for businesses that use green energy are also important. But if conservatives finally join the effort to fight climate change, a lot more will be achievable.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Noah Smith is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was an assistant professor of finance at Stony Brook University, and he blogs at Noahpinion.

To contact the author of this story: Noah Smith at nsmith150@bloomberg.net.

For more columns from Bloomberg View, visit http://www.bloomberg.com/view.