Republicans Need a New Game Plan On Climate Change

There’s no reason for conservatives and libertarians to celebrate President Barack Obama’s recently announced climate change plan. While Obama does seek to confront a real problem, his plan is a big government power grab that would move the nation towards more regulation and a slower economy. But, unfortunately for Republicans, it may nonetheless appeal to younger voters simply because the GOP hasn’t offered an alternative. Unless they come up with one, in fact, Republicans will doom the country to follow the policy prescriptions of the political left and simultaneously hurt themselves at the ballot box.

The data is conclusive: younger people, even younger Republicans, believe that climate change matters. Even in tough economic times, indeed, a slight plurality of those under 30 would trade off economic growth for an improved environment. While it isn’t as prominent in public as most environmentalists might wish, writing off a major issue like climate change seems sure to alienate younger voters. Likewise, a growing percentage of Republicans acknowledge that climate change is real and likely to be a problem. Thus, while Republicans (and for that matter, Democrats) shouldn’t run for high political office on climate-change centered platforms, they ignore it altogether at their own peril.

But that doesn’t say much about what the policies for climate change should be. As I argue in a recent issue of The Weekly Standard, liberals have long used the issue of climate change to advance policies — bigger government overall, increased central control of the economy, more handouts to supposed “good guys” — that they favor anyway. Conservatives, if they want to deal with climate change, should do just the same thing and figure out ways to deal with the problem while lowering taxes and cutting red tape.

Both sides, if they want to be honest and attract younger voters who are likely to be cynical about public institutions, should make it clear that they use climate change to pursue preexisting agendas. There’s nothing wrong with this. While the reality of climate change is, of course, a scientific issue, public policy making (even if it’s taught in “political science” departments) is not a matter of scientific truth. Arriving at the “correct” policies for the United States requires considerations of history, voter sentiment, the inherent rights that the people possess under the Constitution, and of other factors that lie outside the magisterium of science.

This means that Republicans, considering the issue properly, shouldn’t have much trouble coming up with a good climate change policy that’s also a long list of things they want to do anyway. A good conservative policy should include reductions in burdensome regulations under the Clean Air Act, increased energy development (particularly of natural gas), a carbon tax that serves as a dollar-for-dollar replacement for taxes on productive activities, cuts to corporate welfare, and a new commitment to basic scientific research.  

The current plan to do nothing about climate change, both for the Republican Party and for the country in general, isn’t a good one. Unless Republicans formulate a decent, conservative plan on climate change, younger voters will increasingly turn away from the GOP and, over time, come to embrace the big government schemes proffered by Democrats. For now, indeed, the Democrats are the only game in town. 

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Eli Lehrer

Eli Lehrer is president and co-founder of R Street, overseeing its central headquarters in Washington, D.C., as well as its field offices in Tallahassee, Fla.; Columbus, Ohio; and Austin, Texas. Prior to co-founding R Street, Lehrer was vice president of the Heartland Institute. He also played a major role in founding SmarterSafer.org, a coalition of taxpayer, environmental, insurance and free-market groups dedicated to risk-based insurance rates, mitigation and environmental protection.

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