Can climate policy and conservatism work together? Photographer: Torsten Blackwood - Pool/Getty Images
Can climate policy and conservatism work together? Photographer: Torsten Blackwood - Pool/Getty Images

There's a lot to like about Eli Lehrer's argument for National Review that conservatives should stop downplaying global warming and instead try to take advantage of it. But beyond demonstrating the promise of that approach, he inadvertently shows how little it would accomplish, at least within the constraints of today's conservatism.

Here's Lehrer's oh-so-promising premise:

Conservatives should adopt a new strategy in the battle over global warming. Rather than falling back on the claim that global warming isn’t a problem, conservatives should take a page from liberals’ playbook and use the issue to pursue policies they already favor. What we need is a conservative climate-change agenda that shrinks the size of government and uses a small portion of those savings to help do a few things better.

It's hard to argue with any of that. Ignoring climate change will make it hard for Republicans to win the votes of right-leaning centrists, who favor environmental protection over inaction by wide margins. And there's nothing wrong with using the issue to advance conservative policies -- provided those policies actually reduce carbon emissions or protect against the impact of extreme weather.

Some of Lehrer’s proposals would in fact do that, while simultaneously cutting government spending: ending subsidies for coal and oil, for example, or restricting federal flood insurance in areas vulnerable to rising tides.

Likewise, directing more federal money for renewable energy toward "breakthrough” technology research the private sector can't do alone, rather than subsidizing that energy with tax breaks, has a lot of promise.

Where Lehrer reveals the limits of contemporary conservatism is in his call to consider repealing the Environmental Protection Agency's regulations on greenhouse gases, presumably from power plants. The obvious, and arguably superior, alternative to those rules is a carbon tax, which would let the market decide how to cut emissions. But Lehrer doesn’t mention a carbon tax -- or any substantive replacement for the EPA regulations.

A carbon tax has just the mix of ingredients that so appeals to conservatives: It's more efficient, leaning heavily on the private sector and the profit motive; it takes the place of government regulation; and it allows for equal and offsetting tax cuts elsewhere. So Lehrer's failure to mention a carbon tax -- which he's supported in the past -- says as much about the state of conservative thinking on climate change as anything he actually wrote.

What explains his reluctance to acknowledge the policy that best fits the parameters he himself laid out? A tempting conclusion is that the modern conservative aversion to taxes -- of any sort, for any reason -- has congealed to the point at which it prevents even something as conservative-friendly as a market-based approach to climate change.

"For decades," Lehrer writes, "progressives have used the battle over climate change as a proxy for a broader war about culture and ideology." Replace "progressives" with "conservatives," and "climate change" with "taxes," and you’re on your way to understanding the likely reason the phrase "carbon tax" doesn't appear in Lehrer's piece. It would risk turning off conservatives who might otherwise be open to what he is proposing. The problem is, it's also the key to making his proposal work.

To contact the writer of this article: Christopher Flavelle at cflavelle@bloomberg.net.

To contact the editor responsible for this article: Zara Kessler at zkessler@bloomberg.net.