Inglis op-ed: A New Language for Diplomacy in Paris (and U.S.) (The Environmental Forum)

about 4 years ago

Note: The op-ed below by our executive director Bob Inglis appears in The Environmental Forum's Nov/Dec 2015 issue produced by the Environmental Law Institute.

By Bob Inglis

The language of climate change needs to be about more energy, more mobility, and more freedom. It need not be about doing with less, walking and eating bugs or feeling guilty about living in the suburbs. Conservatives in America will join the conversation when the talk is conducted in the language of abundance.

Since its inception, the climate conversation has been cast in the milieu of death — death of the planet, death of a suburban lifestyle, death of significant growth in GDP. The catchphrases in the conversation carry a significant dose of guilt (yes, we humans are to blame), a touch of hypocrisy (the most shrill alarms being sounded at high carbon-footprint, fly-in conferences in exotic locations) and a set of prescriptive solutions that involve the growth of the nanny state (cap-and-trade and the Clean Power Plan, for example). It's no wonder, then, that conservatives have found it difficult to enter the conversation.

It doesn't have to be this way. At we imagine a different conversation. We dream of free enterprise bringing distributed energy systems to villages in India that are currently dark at night. We see those villages leapfrogging our electrical grid with better solar cells and better batteries. What free enterprise did for them in making cell phones available and affordable, it will do for them in energy. A conversation in this language of abundance would pick up on Pope Francis's implicit blessing of the "spirit of enterprise" in his speech to Congress.

Capitalists are right to assert that breakthroughs in things like solar cells and batteries will almost certainly come from labs and capital in the developed world, not the undeveloped world. Humans turn their attention to environmental protection after they've met their basic needs. So we needn't feel guilty for living in a wealthy country. We just need to accept the admonition that "to whom much is given, much will be required." Developing and commercializing the fuels of the future could be the defining achievementof another Greatest Generation, lessening a cause of war, increasing world GDP and making lives more enjoyable.

Defenders of fossil fuels are wrong, however, to say that the developing world is better off sticking with tried and true fossil fuels. As prices rise due to scarcity or higherextraction costs, the developing world will find itself unable to remain at the auction for those fuels. If we really care about people in dark places, we won't offer them thefalse hope of a future built on fossil fuels; we'll get to work inventing the future fuels. The spirit of enterprise will deliver innovations that light up the world, create wealth, and serve willing customers at home and abroad. Clearly, there's an opportunity here to do well by doing good.

How then will future fuels come to be? Some would rely on fickle tax incentives, clumsy government mandates or expensive regulations. At we aim to rely on the liberty of enlightened self interest and the blessings that flow from accountability. If all of the costs of all of the fuels were transparently applied to the fuels such that there were no hidden costs (no unrecognized negative externalities), consumers would drive innovation because the price signal would make it in their self-interest to innovate. As in all areas of life, accountability would bring blessings.

Accountability, abundance, fair competition, wealth creation, care for the poor that's expressed as opportunity rather than a guarantee - these are words of a language that open the climate change conversation to conservatives. The harder part of the conversation comes when we start talking about how to impose that accountability via a price signal. Many conservatives are willing to concede that emitters should pay for the health costs occasioned by their soot. Those costs are immediate and readily quantifiable. But some fear that it's too speculative to calculate the climate change costs of greenhouse gas emissions, as those costs appear over a much longer time horizon.

At we'd be excited about getting to that quantification debate and getting beyond the disputation of the science. For most conservatives, the guiding principle would be setting a price on greenhouse gas emissions that best approximates the marginal harm caused by the next ton of CO2 emitted.

We're aware, though, that the economics profession can provide only part of the answer here. Just as a jury has to decide whether to award a successful plaintiff with non-economic damages on top of economic damages, we as a society have to decide if we have an ethical obligation to future generations that may exceed the value we place upon their lives by cold present value calculations. Thankfully, in a constitutional republic we the people get to answer these value questions at the ballot box and through our electedrepresentatives. Those representatives are waiting for our instructions. They really are. They just need them in a language that they and their activists can understand.

Bob Inglis directs, a community committed to free enterprise action on climate change. He is a Republican who represented South Carolina's 4th District in the U.S. Houe of Representatives from 1993–99 and 2005–11.