How the GOP Should Explain Climate Change

Written by Kenneth Silber on Wednesday December 7, 2011

The GOP nomination race has proven to be a hostile environment for concerns about, or even an acceptance of the reality of, anthropogenic global warming.

Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney have made statements that they don’t know what’s causing climate change, in contradiction of earlier statements indicating that they did know. Jon Huntsman now has expressed doubts about the validity and clarity of the science involved. The other candidates have been broadly dismissive of the issue.

Interestingly, Republican voters may not share such positions. A recent poll found widespread belief that global warming is happening, with 72 percent of Republicans (and 92 percent of Democrats) agreeing on that point. This makes me wonder whether there is an approach a GOP candidate could take that would both appeal to the primary electorate and lead to meaningful action to address the issue.

Such an approach should also enable the candidate to demonstrate a contrast with how President Obama and the Democrats have tackled, or failed to tackle, climate change.

I have drafted a speech that may help some current or future GOP candidate achieve all of the above. Any candidate who wishes to use the following material is more than welcome:

My fellow Republicans,

I am a conservative and I believe that facing up to reality is essential to conservatism. Today I outline how I will lead our nation in addressing a difficult and complex — but very real — problem. That problem is climate change, and specifically the global warming that is being caused by humanity’s use of fossil fuels such as coal and oil.

There is ample evidence that global warming is happening and that human activities are the key factor causing it. Scientists overwhelmingly agree the temperature rise is real. Moreover, they have examined possible factors ranging from volcanoes, to the sun’s fluctuations to cosmic rays that bombard the Earth from space. There is a strong scientific consensus that fossil fuels are the main cause — as pumping carbon into our atmosphere creates a greenhouse effect that traps the sun’s energy and heats the Earth.

Science never gives us absolute certainty, but the real uncertainties here are about the future. We do not know how fast temperatures will rise over decades, or the full effects this will have on our world. We do know that the risks are great — for example, large sections of American farmland becoming unusable, coastal cities flooding, 100-plus-degree heat waves, massive wildfires and other extreme events becoming common.

We must address those risks but not by weighing our economy down with taxes and regulations. On the contrary, a dynamic free-market economy is crucial to limiting the risks and managing the effects that do occur. My plan does not involve picking winners among energy companies and technologies with subsidized loans. Nor is it a cap-and-trade scheme that includes handing out credits to the politically connected. And for that matter, I note that President Obama never actually managed to bring a climate-change plan to a vote in Congress.

My plan is straightforward and honest. We will raise taxes on carbon emissions across the board, while cutting taxes on payrolls and incomes. That means more money in people’s pockets, and more incentives for industry to develop cleaner and safer energy supplies.

We will phase in these tax changes, to avoid any sudden economic shocks, and to give an ever-stronger basis for improving our energy supply. The goal is not to make fossil fuels go away altogether — that’s impossible — but to reduce their environmental impact while expanding American production of cleaner energy technologies.

This will bring greater energy security for America, including less reliance on imported oil from unfriendly parts of the world. It also means less of the air pollution, strip mining and oil spills that threaten our environment even aside from global warming.

Note that we are not waiting for other nations to act before we act. We will continue to press foreign countries to reduce their own carbon emissions, but we will move forward with an American plan that not only cuts back the large U.S. share of global emissions, but also ensures that our nation will be a leader in tomorrow’s energy industries.

The global warming issue is too serious to leave to foreign nations to lead the way, and it won’t be solved by saddling the U.S. economy with undue burdens and government micromanagement. The conservative approach I have sketched out here is the right one for our economy, our environment and our national security.