It’s tempting for center-right policymakers to declare political and policy victory on the issue of climate change. Many rank-and-file Republicans view the issue as a leftist hoax meant to, at best, endlessly funnel research dollars to liberal academics and, at worst, greatly expand the size and scope of government. Probably both. The most audacious grift in history. National Journal summed up GOP politics on climate change thusly:
GOP strategists say that Republican candidates hoping to win primary races, where the electorate tends to be older and more ideologically driven, are still best served to deny, ignore, or dismiss climate change. Today, a Republican candidate “wouldn’t be able to win a primary with a Jon Huntsman position on this,” says strategist Glen Bolger.
And certainly this skeptical view has been strongly reaffirmed by data showing air temperatures at the Earth’s surface have been flat for 15 years even as greenhouse-gas emissions have continued to increase. “The mismatch between rising greenhouse-gas emissions and not-rising temperatures is among the biggest puzzles in climate science just now,” declared a recent issue of The Economist.
Not that the climate-change movement was in such great shape anyway. The Great Recession and then Euro Crisis shifted global concerns to economic growth today from warmer temperatures tomorrow. For instance: The much-hyped 2009 climate change summit in Copenhagen failed to create a strong successor agreement to the Kyoto Protocol. In the United States, the issue has been legislatively moribund since President Barack Obama and congressional Democrats failed to pass their cap-and-trade proposal. And advances in drilling technology have produced vast new reserves of hydrocarbon fuels, lessening “peak oil” fears and pressure to quickly develop clean energy alternatives. As the headline on a recent piece in The Weekly Standard put it: “The Climate Circus Leaves Town.”
Republicans would be wise to ignore such triumphalism. There’s nothing “conservative” about making an all-or-nothing bet that climate science is completely wrong. That approach also puts GOPers deeply on the wrong political side of yet another issue, particularly with younger voters. A recent Pew Research poll found 65% of Americans see global warming as a very serious problem or somewhat serious problem. And while 28% of voters over age 65 accept the scientific consensus that carbon emissions are warming the Earth, nearly 50% of those under 50 accept it.
One potential policy option would be a carbon tax that could substitute for many current energy regulations and subsidies, as well provided revenue to pay for payroll or corporate tax cuts. Admittedly, getting such a plan passed would be a hard slog. Many Republicans view the idea as creating a new revenue stream to combat a non-existent problem. And many Democrats and their environmental activist allies simply prefer and trust mandates and regulation over market mechanisms (even cap-and trade).
Another way Republicans could take the lead on climate change and perhaps get many Democrats to follow along would be to propose a large-scale research project into geoengineering, particularly something called solar radiation management. SRM would reduce the amount of solar energy absorbed by the Earth by reflecting a small amount back into space. In a recent proposal presented at AEI, Lee Lane and J. Eric Bickel highlight two SRM methods: pumping a fine aerosol spray (possibly of sulfur) into the stratosphere and injecting seawater into low-level marine clouds, whitening them. They estimate that for an annual cost of approximately $20 billion to $32 billion, it might be possible to counter a doubling of CO2 emissions and avoid trillions of dollars in future economic harm.
But for now, Lane and Bickel just want expanded research and watchful waiting of the climate: “Since SRM technologies have not yet been developed and many significant uncertainties remain, the most immediate need is funding for R&D. Estimates suggest that a 10-year R&D effort would cost roughly $0.5 billion. For comparison, today, the US federal government is spending about $16 billion a year on climate-change science and related technologies.”
Better taxpayer dough spent on SRM than Solyndra. But for a Republican to propose this, it would mean conceding that maybe, just maybe, human activity is significantly contributing to a harmful changes in the planet’s climate. Many Washington GOPers say this in private — but will they in public or on talk radio?