Conservatively speaking, we are not doing enough to address climate change.
The White House estimates that the $386 billion in incentives for low-carbon technologies in the Inflation Reduction Act will decrease U.S. greenhouse gas emissions by about 40 percent below 2005 levels in 2030. Conservatives, like me, think that U.S. emissions were already trending downward, probably 24-32 percent without the Inflation Reduction Act, which means we will borrow and spend $386 billion to reduce U.S. emissions by 8-16 percent. (I’m also painfully aware that Republican policymakers were on the sideline during these policy negotiations.)
Globally, climate change will get worse. All economies, regardless of their climate policies, will continue to emit greenhouse gas emissions and, therefore, the average global temperature will continue to increase.
World leaders and environmentalists alike were just in Sharm El Sheikh lamenting this reality during the United Nations Climate Change Conference. Much like previous conferences, they also touted progress despite the United Nations’ recent assessment that countries’ commitments to fight climate change are failing. Sadly, while we are beginning to experience climate change’s harmful impacts, the worst consequences will burden future generations.
So, we cannot let the cheers for incremental efforts, such as the Inflation Reduction Act, drown out the persistent warnings from scientists that the seas are still rising.
Astute conservatism calls for being prepared for the future. Currently, our future is an average global temperature increase of 6.4 degrees Fahrenheit and sea-level rise of 30 inches by 2100. Some will argue that these are merely estimates, but that is not an excuse to ignore them. To a true conservative, those estimates are the baseline that should guide our preparation — we might even want to plan for a slightly worse scenario, just in case.
Of course, we can change the baseline by reducing greenhouse gas emissions. (After all, conservatives are not fatalists.) But that is going to require policies more effective than $386 billion in subsidies. And the effort must be global, not isolationist. Instead, we should channel Margaret Thatcher, who appealed for nations to address climate change and for “worldwide agreements on ways to cope with the effects of climate change.” She would likely agree that subsidies and voluntary commitments pursuant to the Paris Agreement are not adequate, that we need conservative solutions like a price on carbon and binding global commitments.
We must also consider that coastlines, people (sometimes by the millions), and markets will move. For too many decades, conservatism has stood on preserving the status quo: resisting government action, resisting rising flood insurance rates to shield policyholders from changing and growing costs, and, more recently, withdrawing funds from institutions that consider climate change as they make investment decisions.
The politics of climate change has spurred such a backward approach. But it is time to look forward, especially now that Republicans have regained a leadership role in Congress. Sure, it was not the so-called “red wave” that pollsters predicted for the midterm elections. But conservatives have an opportunity — an obligation really, to future generations — to support climate policies that meaningfully address the issue. Those policies must reduce emissions, atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gasses, sea-level rise, and global temperature.
Despite the shifted and hidden costs of the Inflation Reduction Act, actual costs will inevitably be borne. Conservatives must focus on reducing those costs, designing climate policies that prepare for the physical impact of climate change, pursue strong global agreements to reduce emissions, embrace economics by imposing a price on carbon, and reduce unnecessary subsidies.
Today, policymakers of both parties might consider those policies politically impossible. But scientists and economists likely consider them responsible — even conservative.
Alex Flint is the executive director of the Alliance for Market Solutions and former staff director of the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources.