In My Words: Conservative voices needed in climate policy discussions

In this column distributed by the Elon University Writers Syndicate, Professor of Biology Dave Gammon says that the climate policy debate needs voices and principles from across the political spectrum. 

This column was distributed by the Elon University Writers Syndicate  and was published by the Burlington Times-News, The Raleigh News & Observer, the Fayetteville Observer, the Sanford Herald and the Greensboro News & Record. Views expressed in this column are the author’s own and not necessarily those of Elon University. 

By Dave Gammon
The unnecessary partisan divide over climate change science was dramatically illustrated on Monday, Sept. 10, by twin events. On the same day the Democratic governor of California signed a statewide bill mandating 100 percent zero-carbon electricity by 2045, the Republican leaders of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency were finalizing plans to roll back Obama-era climate regulations that limit leaks from methane, a potent greenhouse gas.
Unfortunately, too many battle-hardened GOP combatants believe the myth that accepting mainstream climate change science means giving ground to the enemy. Because many of these fighters thrive on criticizing liberals, let me first indulge them by pointing out a few flawed assumptions liberals commonly make when thinking about climate change science.
First, too many liberals believe Republican opposition to climate change science translates into a general opposition to science. Despite Chris Mooney’s misguided book, “Republican War on Science,” conservatives continue to support science overall as demonstrated by sustained Republican support for programs such as NASA, the National Institute of Health and the National Science Foundation.
A second flawed assumption many liberals make is that accepting climate science should compel the acceptance of the climate policies preferred by liberals, namely strong government regulation of the fossil fuel industry. Climate science is not the same as climate policy. It is possible for my conservative friends to accept the science of climate change without swallowing the lie that Big Government must now invade and regulate all aspects of our private lives, from the light bulbs we purchase to the food we eat.
In some cases, government needs to get out of the way. Where I live, misguided government regulations almost prevented the installation of a large solar farm. Adequately addressing climate threats requires consideration of both liberal and conservative policies. Just last year, for example, a brave cohort of conservative thinkers and businesses known as the Climate Leadership Council proposed “The Conservative Case for Carbon Dividends.”
Science can play a strong role in evaluating the real-world effects and tradeoffs of these policy alternatives. However, policy decisions in a democracy must ultimately reside with elected officials. Ideally these decisions will reflect both science and the values of the decision-makers.
OK, enough criticism of liberals. Now a few reasons why conservatives should care about climate change.
First, a changing climate represents a threat to national security. Rising sea levels are already eroding our borders from the Gulf Coast to the Outer Banks. The frequency of coastal flooding at high tide has tripled or quadrupled over the last four decades in communities like Norfolk, Virginia, and Charleston, South Carolina. Climate risks like these are growing exponentially and deserve to be tackled sooner rather than later. Doing so minimizes both financial and environmental costs.
Conservatives might question whether it is fair to label climate change as a security threat. Climate threats certainly differ from standard military threats. But cyber-threats also differ, and the U.S. government invests more than $20 billion per year in response. What’s the difference in whether a home gets destroyed by a military bomb or by climate-associated floods?
Conservatives should also care about climate change because it represents a massive business opportunity, ranking with the dawn of the internet or social media. Visit the “sustainability” website of any major corporation (yes, they all have them), and you will see proof of this concept. Climate-friendly innovations in agriculture, building design, biotechnology and transportation are increasing industrial efficiency, improving health, and creating jobs right now. They will continue to do so for decades to come.
For example, solar and wind together accounted for half of new U.S. generating capacity in 2017. This is mostly because of a multi-decade drop in the prices for both wind and solar. Clean energy is rapidly achieving price parity with traditional energy sources like coal and oil. Capitalism is poised to serve both people and planet.
In sum, too many of us see politics as a battle of us-vs-them. As the late U.S. Sen. John McCain emphasized, “much more unites us than divides us,” and partisan tribalism too often results in small-mindedness and “getting nothing done, my friends.” When climate change science becomes politicized, it ultimately hurts all sides.
Neither political party has a corner on climate policy solutions. Just as monopolies result in market failure, the marketplace of climate policy will function best when all political parties contribute their ideas. We need Democrats humble enough to consider the merits of conservative solutions. And we need Republicans who can emphasize how relevant conservative principles, such as national security, free markets, and individual freedom, can work to protect the environment.