January 24, 2018


Time for Conservatives to Break the Anti-Environmentalist Mold: They, of all people, should want to protect the planet for the living and unborn. (HENRY CHAPPELL, January 18, 2018, American Conservative)

Do conservatives have a predisposed hostility towards environmental concerns?

With their preference for order, regard for their ancestors' accomplishments, and instinctive revulsion towards Rousseauian notions of natural perfection, traditionalists recoil against what Pascal Bruckner called the environmentalist left's "numberless Cassandras...[who] do not intend to warn so much as to condemn us," while anointing the planet as the "new proletariat" that must be saved.

Yet when considered rationally, environmental issues actually call upon core conservative principles.

In How to Think Seriously About the Planet, philosopher Roger Scruton asserts that pollution and habitat destruction engage "a fundamental moral idea to which conservatives attach great importance: the idea that those responsible for damage should also repair it." Conservatives oppose externalization of the costs of poor sexual and financial decisions, and likewise should resent their descendants being burdened with someone else's environmental mess. [...]

Any sound conservative approach must acknowledge that stewardship--honoring the Burkean contract between the living, dead, and unborn--includes culture and economy as well as the environment. Nations with robust economies are more resilient and better able to cope with environmental problems. While the global poor are most vulnerable to climate change, economic calamity poses a more immediate threat. Wealth must exist before it can be used to ameliorate humanity's worst problems. Weakened industrial nations are less willing and able to develop and share clean technology with poor countries where smoke inhalation, filthy drinking water, and lack of medical care are currently more pressing than climate change.

Yet conservatives must admit that disbelief in utopia implies a belief in limits, including limits to the earth's carrying capacity, the atmosphere's ability to absorb pollutants, and what we can know and foresee. The profoundly conservative words of Aldo Leopold, the great hunter, forester, and naturalist, should resonate with the Burkean sensibility: "If the biota, in the course of aeons, has built something we like but do not understand, then who but a fool would discard seemingly useless parts? To keep every cog and wheel is the first precaution of intelligent tinkering."

If, as Roger Scruton asserts, those responsible for damage should repair it, we must price carbon emissions. A cap-and-trade scheme, the basis of the ineffective Kyoto Treaty, places most of the burden on producers, not those most responsible for damage--consumers. Carbon taxation seems more prudent, either a Pigovian model in which tax revenue funds development of clean energy production, geoengineering, and other adaptive technologies--a revenue-neutral system, ably described by Andrew Moylan (TAC, Sept./Oct. 2013)--or a "fee and dividend" system supported by some climate advocates, including NASA's James Hansen.

Imperfections shouldn't dissuade conservatives, of all people. There's no denying vulnerabilities in a system in which a tax on destructive activity funds desirable enterprise. An approach that raises money to be returned to taxpayers invites pilfering by a government running a high deficit. While a revenue-neutral model, which substitutes carbon taxation for perceived onerous environmental regulations, is truest to free market principles, we should be extremely cautious about dismantling regulations that have been very effective. In A Climate of Crisis, Allitt writes, "Whatever the merits [of] arguments in the abstract, the historical record shows clearly enough that many manufacturers polluted the air and water until they were forbidden to do so, at which time they stopped."

It's a simple matter of taxing externalities.

Posted by at January 24, 2018 6:18 PM