Green Old Party

What would a conservative environmentalist agenda look like?

If the Republican Party wants to recover from the Great Drubbing of 2008, it shouldn’t waste too much time worrying about how to turn blue states red. It should be thinking about how to turn itself green.

There are signs the party knows this. Reports of actual substance from the Obama/McCain meeting on Monday were scarce, but aides speculated that they discussed climate change. Karl Rove suggests in this week’s Newsweek that in order to win over young people, Republicans need a “market-oriented ‘green’ agenda that’s true to our principles.” And Republican commentator David Frum has made a similar case, arguing that the GOP “has the ability to reach these people in a common sense, non-fanatical way.”

Still, the Democrats get all the publicity on the climate-change issue—the Dalai Lama of green, Al Gore, is one of them. What must be doubly frustrating to Republicans is that their policies can be pretty green, too. There’s actually plenty of overlap between the interests of conservatives and environmentally conscious Americans. What follows is a list of a few policies the GOP might emphasize in order to maximize its climate-change cred:

Save money—and the planet. This one is easy. Fiscal responsibility is a time-honored GOP ideal (emphasis on ideal, as opposed to reality). And there are ancillary benefits: National-security hawks want to ease our dependence on foreign oil from Saudi Arabia. Less demand for oil will also make the price of gasoline fall, cheering commuters. Environmentalists know that less consumption means less emission. John McCain was the first Republican presidential candidate to tie these threads together, arguing that when it comes to energy consumption, less is more. But the GOP can take it a step further: Encourage Americans to consume energy more efficiently—drive fuel-efficient cars, turn off lights, and, yes, inflate their tires. It’s not wimpy liberal hooey; it’s patriotic.

Don’t cap, don’t trade—tax. No joke. John McCain advocated a cap-and-trade system on the campaign trail—even if he didn’t fully understand it. But most Republican aren’t likely to embrace it any time soon. Instead, Frum proposes taxing energy and using all the revenue to eliminate other taxes. Republicans might retch at the idea of a gas tax, but not if it means killing the corporate and capital gains taxes. Plus, once Republicans see the horror show that is cap and trade under Obama, says Frum, they’ll come around. Another enviro-friendly Frum proposal: Build more toll roads. That way, there’s less incentive to drive and more money to stimulate business.

Don’t feed food. Agricultural subsidies are repulsive to free-market conservatives because they distort the price of food and represent excessive government intervention. They are anathema to environmentalists, too, because they drive up the use of harmful fertilizer. Subsidies allow domestic producers to sell their goods cheaply, but those goods are often produced on low-quality land, which requires more fertilizer, which turns into runoff and pollutes rivers.

Kill energy subsidies. Most environmentalists don’t care about the economic inefficiencies caused by subsidies for wind energy. To them, it’s worth the trade-off. But they might oppose subsidies for other, less environmentally friendly energy sources. Ethanol has proven to be less benign than originally thought. Nuclear energy still concerns many Americans, even though many politicians tout its safety. And many environmentalists think clean coal is a myth. Economic conservatives and greenies can agree that the government shouldn’t be spending this money—either because it costs taxpayers money or because it costs them their health. Sure, opposing ethanol subsidies is politically risky. But so is alienating everyone who dislikes pandering.

Go fish, with caution. Nothing sets GOP blood a-boil like the unregulated exploitation of coastal fisheries! But, seriously, there is overlap between libertarian Republicans who support imposing property rights rules on the fishing industry and environmentalists who want to limit the number of fish you can haul in a day—a sort of cap and trade for seafood. Right now, the industry suffers from a tragedy of the commons; no one owns the oceans, so no one has incentive to preserve their fisheries. Both conservatives and environmentalists want to change that.

Hike the hikers. Republicans can make the case that because of the low entry fees, national parks suffer from overuse. If we raised the fees—or, in more GOP-appropriate language, stop subsidizing granola-munching backpackers—it would reduce the erosion and impact on the supposedly preserved areas. Some environmentalists might argue that hurts the park-going American public. But, say conservatives, what about the non-park-going public that is paying for the park-going public to destroy wildlife? Discuss.

There’s a hitch to all this. Environmentalists and most conservatives still disagree that global warming is real and man-made. But as Rove acknowledges, sentiment is shifting as more young people enter the electorate. Maybe the GOP can shelve the debate about causes and focus on the effects of climate change. Then it may stand a better chance of stealing some of the Democrats’ green-tinted spotlight.

Thanks to Ben Lieberman of the Heritage Foundation and Jerry Taylor of the Cato Institute.