The National Post – Canada’s right-leaning daily newspaper – has publicly stated that it believes climate change is real, and also that the current government has the right approach to dealing with it. In particular, it praises Environment Minister Jim Prentice for avoiding the “creation of state-managed “green economies” — socialism with a Gaian face.”
Whether such a creation is possible (and whether it would be desirable or not) are questions that can be set aside for a moment. The irony that seems to be paramount when it comes to the relationship between conservatives and climate change is how they stress a desire to interfere in markets and individual choices as little as possible, while rejecting the mechanism that would do that best: a carbon tax. A carbon tax doesn’t force anyone to drive a small car or, terrifying thought, forgo automobiles all together. It doesn’t force people to choose small pets, give up flying, or make other specific sacrifices. It also doesn’t rely upon the government deciding which energy technologies should succeed, whether that means renewables, nuclear, carbon capture and storage, or something else. It encourages low-carbon technological development in the most hands-off and market-friendly way possible.
All a carbon tax does is take the price imposed on strangers by greenhouse gas emissions and makes it ‘internal’ to the decision-making of individuals and other economic actors throughout society. It comes the closest to retaining the libertarian ideal in a world where interconnectedness forces us to take into consideration the consequences our actions will have on others. I have talked before about the irony of how laissez faire climate policies will inevitably fail and force governments to take employ more coercive measures. That outcome can only be avoided by sending a clear price signal on greenhouse gas emissions, and doing so early and at a meaningful level. Indeed, a carbon tax can be said to be a way of protecting property rights, given that it reduces the degree to which emitters will harm the property and prosperity of other people around the world.
It should be noted that the important policy change here is to put a price on carbon emissions, to represent the harm they cause to other people. The establishment of such a price is more important than the precise mechanism through which it is done, whether that is a carbon tax or a cap-and-trade system in which 100% of the permits are sold at auction. The choice of instrument is less important than moving quickly to put a price on carbon in one way or another.
It is an open question whether conservatives will realize the extent to which they are undermining their own aims and ideals through opposition to carbon pricing. Part of that is the paleoconservative stance that climate change isn’t happening, that it is benign, that it is inevitable, etc. Among conservatives with enough basic awareness about the world to know that those arguments have been discredited, we should hope that support begins to grow for the idea of dealing with the climate problem in the way that involves the least expansion of the state and the least infringement on liberty: a carbon tax.
While there may well be cause for accompanying such a tax with other regulations – such as a ban on coal power – at least gaining conservative support for some kind of carbon action would change the tone of the debate. We would finally stop pretending that we can ignore climate change indefinitely while the economy keeps ticking on just fine, and begin to appreciate and implement the steps required to build a low-carbon future.