A Conservative Strategy to Reduce Greenhouse Gases

Norm King
Norm King is a former city manager of three California cities and of the San Bernardino County transportation commission and has taught part-time at USC and Claremont McKenna College. He also served as past director of the Leonard Transportation Center at CSUSB

I am fiscally conservative and unlike many of my fellow Republicans I have no doubt that climate change is occurring and that carbon consumption is a major cause. I believe that human ingenuity will mitigate many of the effects of a warming climate.  While there needs to be a more open scientific debate about how quickly this will happen, I am concerned that we are headed to a point at which some of the earth’s natural systems will become unsustainable.

I believe that by far the most effective and cheapest way to curb greenhouse gas emissions is a revenue-neutral carbon fee based on conservative public policy principles. The rationale is simple: use the market to mitigate climate warming.

These principles are:

Honest prices.  Market prices which do not reflect the negative externalities of carbon use are “dishonest” prices.  A per ton carbon fee makes the price “honest” thus allowing the market to achieve a public good – mitigation of climate change.

Personal accountability.  What is more Republican than personal accountability?  A carbon fee holds us individually accountable for the consequences of our actions by incurring a user fee for using up a resource.

A carbon fee is a user fee – not a tax.  It is an “atmospheric using-up fee” and is no different than paying one’s water or electric bill.  Public policy is always improved when an “honest” user fee (i.e. when the fee has a nexus with the consumption of a resource) can be imposed.

Use price to achieve a public good.   Using price via a user fee will be more equitable and efficient than other government “tools” – such as spending money, regulating or bribing people – subsidizing is the nice word for bribing – to do the “right” things.

Use the market. A per-ton carbon fee spurs innovation and provides incentives to the market to compete to reduce greenhouse gas at the least cost.  This is in contrast to traditional bribery policies which enable politicians to choose winners and losers resulting in more costly non-solutions or to the creation of cap and trade programs which become the legislature’s piggy-bank to fund programs which are only vaguely related to reducing carbon emissions.

Cost-effectiveness. The goal is to spend the least amount to reduce a ton of greenhouse gas.  Every emission reduction strategy, whether it is an efficient or inefficient strategy, requires carbon input.  Of all possible strategies an across-the-board carbon fee will incentivize the market to spend the least amount possible to reduce a ton of greenhouse gas.

Accounts for life-cycle emissions.  A carbon fee will force producers and users to account for  life-cycle emissions rather than complying with end-use regulations (such as mileage standards) which encourage producers to increase carbon use at the front-end during the production process in order to obtain lower emissions during the end-use, i.e. tailpipe.

Transparency in government.  A carbon fee is explicit (a specific cost per ton) and as such is transparent vs. the non-transparency of most “green” regulatory and subsidy policies which often produce emission reductions at outrageously high costs per ton.  These programs have multiple and largely hidden costs and subsidies which are rarely calculated and converted into the total actual cost per ton.

Not a net cost to the economy. Unlike existing green policies and subsidies, a revenue-neutral carbon fee does not impose a deadweight cost on the economy because the fee is returned directly to consumers.

The above are the principles which I try to articulate to my conservative friends and for that matter to friends and foes of all political stripes. I frequently find these concepts create common ground upon which there is hope for consensus.  However, this doesn’t always work so I resort to one final argument:

“I realize that not everyone believes that there is a relationship between carbon use and climate change.  But you should still support a revenue- neutral carbon fee because it is the cheapest way to do something you don’t believe in and is a fairly inexpensive way to buy insurance should you be wrong.”

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