News

Nov. 12, 2012

Can conservatives be convinced on climate change?

By Mark Golden

SACRAMENTO, Calif.--Opposition to action on global warming may seem to be almost a litmus test for Republican Party candidates, but conservative minds could be changed under the right circumstances, according to several experts in the admittedly niche field.

The current U.S. policy of subsidizing fossil fuels is not in line with conservative values, and a deal to change that policy could be struck so long as it reduced the reach of the federal government, speakers at the Behavior, Energy & Climate Change conference said Monday.

“Since 1980 our foreign policy has been shaped by the Carter doctrine, which is that the United States should use whatever means necessary, including military intervention, to defend U.S. interests in the Middle East. Our dependence on oil undermines our foreign policy and national security,” said the founder of EnerGOP, Drexel Kleber.

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The key is to delink energy from environmentalism, said Kleber, a former conservative talk radio host in Texas. “Climate change science is difficult to understand. Energy is personal. It’s my son being deployed to a war in Iraq or my loss of hunting grounds to transmission lines under eminent domain or getting in an argument with my wife over the empty checking account due to high gasoline prices,” he said. “Meanwhile, we are literally funding the greatest threat to this country--terrorism.”

The keys to a deal on climate change, according to Alex Bozmoski of the Energy & Enterprise Institute at George Mason University, would be to eliminate all subsidies for all forms of energy and to include external costs like defense spending and health impacts in the price of fossil fuels. But revenues from a tax on carbon must be offset by reductions on other taxes and by eliminating the many laws and regulations on greenhouse gases that have been enacted as proxies for such a tax. Preferably, Bozmoski added, conservatives would get to choose which taxes will be reduced.

“Nobody should be allowed to privatize their profits while socializing their costs,” he said. “Let energy sources compete on their merits rather than on their ability to secure political influence.”

However, no deal seems likely until liberals change their positions on global warming.

“Without a limited-government solution on the table, denying climate change is a reasonable coping mechanism for conservatives,” Bozmoski told the predominantly liberal audience. “You need to throw all the talk about ‘cap and trade’ and ‘renewable portfolio standards’ on the trash heap of history and develop climate solutions that do not grow government.”

Kleber and Bozmoski are in the minority in their political party on the issue of climate change, but they are not alone. The conservative Hoover Institution’s task force on energy policy, led by former secretary of state George Shultz, is pushing for a revenue-neutral carbon tax as well. The moderator of Monday’s discussion, James Sweeney, is a conservative and the director of the Precourt Energy Efficiency Center at Stanford University.

According to surveys performed by the Center for Climate Change Communication, also at George Mason University, the distance between conservatives and liberals is not as vast as one might think. Approximately half of registered Republicans would support action on climate change if it boosted clean energy jobs and reduced dependence on imported oil, said the center’s Connie Roser-Renouf, a communications professor. Similarly, about 40 perent of conservatives would support a tax on carbon if the revenues paid down the national debt or reduced other taxes. However, conservatives fear that action on climate change will lead to more government intrusion and higher energy prices, and most do not see how it would improve national security.

Pessimism is a problem for both conservatives and liberals, Roser-Renouf said. Only 6 percent of Americans, regardless of political affiliation, think that humans can effectively deal with the problem of global warming.

The annual Behavior, Energy & Climate Change conference is sponsored by Stanford University’s Precourt Energy Efficiency Center, the California Institute for Energy & the Environment, and the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy.

(Mark Golden works in communications at the Precourt Energy Efficiency Center at Stanford University.)

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Media Contact: Mark Golden, (650) 724-1629, mark.golden@stanford.edu